It’s exhausting, infuriating and lonely. The life of an East African trucker is ruled by potholes, red tape, time constraints and a girlfriend in every border town
By Aernout Zevenbergen
Fabien rubs the sleep from his eyes. A small man, pitch-black. His pair of trousers has been ironed stiff, with a sharp crease. He wears his immaculate shirt tucked tightly into his trousers. His sleeves are buttoned around his wrists. Shining loafers fit the style of his entire outfit. In the days that follow Fabien will take a checked handkerchief from his pockets to wipe sweat from his hands, dust from in-between his fingers and tiny drops of perspiration from his neck.
“Bonjour. Bien dormi?” His eyes are honest, but seem to have lost their expressiveness. His voice, I will come to realise as the days pass, does not give any hints of either his thoughts or his feelings. Fabien does not wait for me to answer his well-wish, and disappears. Together with his ‘tank boy,’ Wambua, he checks his truck and trailer.
Wambua appears to be everything his boss is not. Cheerful eyes, and quickwitted. He combines cynicism with a wide smile.
“Africa,” he will say repeatedly while shaking his head. “It will take a long time before we’ll get it right.” Or: “Africa? Allow us one more generation to get our act together. My kids might have a better life.”
Sad is only sad if you allow setbacks to throw you off your balance. Wambua cannot afford to be thrown off balance. A kick against each tyre. Six axles, 20 tyres. Fabien points out one tyre, and tells Wambua to change it with the one behind it. A simple trick to hoodwink hungry traffic officers. “Hyenas work harder for a living than your average police officer. He just holds up his hand, begging for ‘something small.’ Grousers.” Wambua smiles one of his cynical smiles, follows it up with yet another of his aphorisms on Africa.
The Right Speed
Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, is our destination. The journey could take eight days. “Or 20 -depending on the mood of the red tape,” Wambua grins. Three borders, thousands of litres of fuel, many dinners, gallons of tea.
The route from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to the Great Lake Region is the aorta of East Africa. Coffee, tea and commodities like gold and diamonds find their way to the global markets in exchange for luxury products, building materials, emergency aid and weapons.
Over 100 million people rely on what the truckers collect and deliver. The Congolese woman buys her piece of Kenyan soap. The Rwandan man sells his coffee. The displaced child in Burundi gets a blanket from an overseas aid organisation. The Ugandan driver uses fuel, which was refined abroad and shipped to his doorstep via Mombasa and Nairobi.
Some segments of the route are infamous. Rebels along the route act as if they were ‘vampires,’ as Wambua calls them. On other stretches, robbers await their chance for a ‘hit and run.’ Truckers constantly have to assess what’s ahead, and make their decisions accordingly. Wait for a convoy? Go as fast as the old engine can go?
Fabien cruises along fast enough not to allow robbers to cut the ropes that keep his cargo neatly packed, yet careful enough not to wreck his truck in the crater-sized potholes. Often during the day, entire cargos disappear into the bush - thrown there box after box by gang members who jump on trailers out of sight from the rear-view mirrors, and slowly suck away the freight. Henchmen collect the goods.
At night, they resort to more violent ways of loot collection: shotguns, Kalashnikovs and anything else that will silence a driver. Fabien has been ploughing this route for the last 18 years. He knows the risks of muggings, hijackings and theft. He knows the smell of a civil war - Uganda in the 80s, his own Rwanda in the early 90s and most recently Burundi. He doesn’t talk about any of it - not a word.
Malaba, on the border between Kenya and Uganda. Nightfall. Fabien searches for a hotel room. Tomorrow morning he will have to queue at 7am to get his paperwork going. Pencil pushers will be his fate. Clearing his goods will require a day at least. “It takes a long time to get a stamp, and I need many stamps to cross the border.”
Many nationalities gather in Malaba. Somalis, Zambians, Ugandans, Congolese.
Each has his own bar, his own group of girls. A procession of carnal desires starts, with girls wrapped in tight skirts and revealing stretch pants. “Let me be your girlfriend, tonight …” Mystery and the subtle techniques of seduction have been thrown to the dogs. A direct approach rules the streets of Malaba.
Food first, then beer. A soccer game on satellite TV in the canteen. Then a woman. It’s all a matter of priorities. The game of love on the East African trucker route is like playing Russian roulette. The trade route is a hotbed of HIV/AIDS.
In Borderpost Bar, Arap Petrol empties his fourth pint of beer in less than 20 minutes. Driving makes a man thirsty. His ‘Malaba girlfriend’ sits next to him, silently, her eyes lowered. “My luggage consists mainly of clean Y-fronts and condoms. Many condoms. You have to be careful here. It is a matter of life and death. Stay away from the women, you hear me?”
Arap Petrol - he got his nickname because of his Arab background and his product - does not believe in the combination of committed love and trucking. He has his girlfriends, everywhere. And then there is the one woman who birthed his children.
“Someone needs to wash my socks, and I need a mother for my kids. When you’re a trucker, you need to be able to be lonely and not go mad. You have to be able to love yourself. That way, you don’t need someone else to love you.”
He looks at his playmate, and asks her if she’d like another coke. She smiles at him. “Some fries too maybe?” A nod.
“When I leave for Uganda tomorrow, she’ll cry herself a river because I am going. In the afternoon she’ll receive another boyfriend. That’s how she makes ends meet.” He wouldn’t call it prostitution. A hooker sleeps with each and every one who is willing to pay for the service. “What prostitute would wash your socks, have sex with you and ask how your first-born is doing? My girl here even knows his name. I am not the only man in her life, I know. I can’t afford to be her only man. I am a trucker, I transport fuel.”
“When you’re a trucker, you need to be able to be lonely and not go mad”
An Artist on the Anthill
With his left hand, Kennedy plays with a handful of paintbrushes. In his right hand he keeps a pot of white paint. His eyes scan the parking lot for trucks with missing obligatory signs. ‘Tool box,’ ‘Transit Goods,’ ‘Battery.’ Or a fuel tank without a specification of its size, which is always greater than the measurement the artist is asked to paint. Why tempt fate when smuggling fuel is hard as it is?
The area just before the offices of Customs & Excise is like an anthill. Everyone carries something, moves something or sells something. Kennedy is just one of many. His fellow salesmen sell cloyingly sweet tea, or dry pancakes wrapped in old newspapers. Thermos flasks, washing powder, blankets, shoes - everything is for sale. Drivers offer their diesel when customs officials suspect them of carrying too much for their destination.
Others bring in water. With lightning speed they wash the dust off the trucks. No one gets to cross borders in a dirty truck.
Kennedy’s eyes seem out of place in this universe of odd-jobbers. As if sweating and slaving away under the cruel sun is beneath him. Although tattered, he maintains an air of distinction. “I am an artist,” Kennedy confesses. In Malaba the brush is his bread and the paint his butter. If he were able to follow his heart, he’d be painting art, abstract work. Some of his work is on permanent display at Gallery Watatu, one of the main centres of modern art in Kenya. Tourists in flip-flops and diplomats in suits buy their beloved African art here.
Now he paints elegant letters in white paint on perishable metal.
The sun burns relentlessly. It is midday. Fabien has been waiting for hours at Customs & Excise. Pushing, smiling, laying it on with a trowel, pleading and remaining silent. “Too many stamps. Officials are a hungry breed.”
Ismail, a young Rwandan trucker, snuggles up to his girl in the nearest canteen. Hand in hand they walk to his cabin, kissing and laughing in clouds of dust. He has got his stamps; tomorrow he may leave.
A few hours later, Fabien too flashes a smile . his first. “Tomorrow we’ll leave, at sunrise.”
Waiting for Stamps
Lush green and high trees have replaced the savannah. Flowers bloom in neat gardens. Green jungle. Good roads without potholes. Monkeys swinging in the trees, right beside the road. The source of the Nile, its wild waters channelled to give Uganda seemingly unlimited electricity.
Ugandan officers are as corrupt as their Kenyan colleagues. They fine truckers for plastic covers that are not tied according to rules as the officers define them on any given day; for incorrectly filled out insurance papers; or because the last few metres of the trailer ran through a red light.
“It infuriates me; this endless harassment for no reason whatsoever,” rants Wambua. “Why don’t they just hang a note around their necks, like professional beggars do? ‘Blind, orphan, widower and handicapped?’ That way, you just throw out some cash through the window, and continue your journey. No loss of time, no worries – same amount of money. They pretend to be officers, guarding law and order. In the meantime, they just steal our money. They should get an honest job, like you and me. Nothing wrong with honest sweat. Aaaah, Africa… when will you come right?”
The convoy is heading for Kampala. Ismail with his load of match sticks; Freddy the Congolese doesn’t know his cargo, only the recipient: the Rwandan Army. The Zambians, Johnson and Johnson, drive a truck full of cosmetics. Arap Petrol cargoes his A9 jet fuel.
Everyone will have to wait in Kampala for a few days. Paperwork and stamps necessary to continue the journey to Goma (Congo), Kigali (Rwanda), Juba (South Sudan) or Bujumbura (Burundi) are done here. This is a city where private guards patrol the streets and private property with shotguns; it is also a city where God’s ugliest birds fly around, shit the streets, eat the rubbish and live on the roofs of office buildings. Marabous, big birds, with dirty pink necks and long beaks. This is also the town where Sylvia wants to kiss, provided I pay her, and the sounds of the disco drone till sunrise.
Fabien has started to worry. He has made it only to Kampala so far. Tomorrow he wants to speed things up a bit. Every day earlier than he is expected to arrive in Bujumbura will reward him 100 dollars extra -a little treasure. He yearns to see his wife and kids, who live in a tiny village north of Kigali. Time to devour miles.
Tired of Travel
Mirima Hills, the border post between Rwanda and Uganda, is a dump amidst the savannah. Outside the hamlet the treetops make a wide roof, consisting of thin leaves on ample branches. Hills everywhere. On the left are those of Tanzania, on the right those of Uganda, and ahead of us those of Rwanda. The first few of Rwanda’s famous thousand hills.
Mirima Hills is an amiable mess. Business and formalities take place in a relaxed atmosphere. People seem more interested in a good chat than in the boring nitty-gritty of work. Everyone converses. About nothing, about everything. About the one and only road, a dirt road, which turns into slush after a short shower. Or about the 32 cows which were recently arrested for illegally crossing the border. A serious crime, for which the area commissioner was called to investigate.
Ismail waits here as well, cuddling a new girlfriend. “They see me as a sugar daddy. I help them pay the school fees for their kids, they make me relax.”
And Zak Abdallah, too, waits. His old Mercedes truck is going through one of its bad moods. “I am 65, I need a rest. My life goes zigzag - up and down. I am not getting ahead. I am still sleeping on the ground; I still have to cook my own meal.”
I have come across Zak many times before. He always wears a dark blue beret, and a smile. However, today he is not smiling. “I’m getting tired, but I cannot retire. No money. All I earn goes straight to my kids. I want them to have a better life than I had. Yet, I am so tired of roaming around. Every day I read the paper, I read everything that’s happening in the world. I just don’t get it any longer. The world is not what it used to be. I roam through a place I understand less, the more I travel.”
Though Zak is worn out, Ismail appears untouched. He flirts with his girlfriend and sings praises to a trucker’s freedom. “I could be so stinking rich, were it not for the bureaucrats. They suffocate Africa with their rules, their stamps, and their corruption. Why am I here, with this girl? Because a few offices away some official is choking on my documents. I’d prefer nothing more than working and earning money for my wife who is about to deliver my first-born. But what do I do? I am wheedling this gorgeous babe here …”
Arap Petrol has no desire to snuggle up to any of his ‘girlfriends’ today. He’s in trouble. His tyres keep deflating for some weird reason. Sometimes with a puff and a sigh, sometimes hardly noticeably. He and his tank boy have fixed three tyres so far. Useless. On the Rwandan side - after his paperwork has gone through he suddenly hears a sighing sound. He was just making himself a nice cup of tea.
Arap gives the finger to no one in particular. “Even when I’m not moving, things go wrong!” He decides to drive with one wheel less on one axle. He’s just had it with his share of luck on this trip. Some crooks had already stolen most of his diesel, as well as his jack. Now his tyres have gone. “Just go to hell,” he says to nobody. The merciless sun ushers in another steaming hot day.
One More Border
Ismail is a happy man. Having just arrived in Kigali, news reaches him of his wife’s delivery. A son, sure enough. “Allahu akbar.” He has no time to visit them. The ceremony during which his son will officially be named is only in a week. But first he needs to deliver his cargo in Congo. After that he might have two days.
Waiting. This eternal waiting for papers to come through. Isaac Zabbhan has earned a master’s degree in waiting.
For the past month he has been bored to death on the tarmac of the customs area in Kigali. He ate his last food four days ago, and spent his last money two days earlier. All that he has left now is a skinny chicken in a basket. His boss forgot to give him money for duties, and numerous times he promised to sort it out. So Zabbhan waits. What else can he do?
Hills surround us. We climb, wind, descend, ascend, brake, twist and accelerate. “This is when you need turbo,” Wambua crows. “Turbo pushes you through everything and anything. Turbo is pure and unrivalled power. We’ll have to do it with the explosions of gasoline only. Guys driving turbo are home by now.”
Zebras roam the countryside. A little later, banana trees, fields and green hills as far as the eye can see.
“It is peaceful now,” proclaims the Rwandan immigration chief at the post on the Burundi border. It’s after 6pm, and although he’s still working, he points at the office on the other side of the border. “I believe they’ve closed shop for the day, but try your luck.” The officer wants to go soon to get his beer at the bar in the only establishment on the Rwandan side.
Night falls when he stamps our passports. With Fabien and Wambua, I cross the border. Only a trace of moonlight breaks the pitch-dark. Coniferous trees stick high up into the air. Silhouettes of hills.
Burundi’s border is indeed closed, the officials have left, and the barriers are down. We will have to sleep in no-man’s land. No toilet, no bed, no shower. Only the chill of the night. “Don’t worry,” says Fabien. “It is too cold for mosquitoes. We will try again tomorrow.”
Wambua expresses his philosophy: “They close the border just to bother us. No other reason. It is in their nature. Officials. Don’t take it personally. We still live in the 16th century.”
The final stretch. We progress slowly, until suddenly Lake Tanganyika becomes visible, beneath us in the lowlands. The lake lies in the valley like a copper plate, the sun reflecting in the water . that cruel, copper ball in the firmament, too bright to observe with the naked eye. Men and women work the land, hand on plough, sweating and toiling in the hope that they will survive today, and tomorrow.
* Originally published in longer format in Spots of a Leopard - On Being a Man by Aernout Zevenbergen