This months cover

  Driving Africa
by John Aalborg

The highway up ahead is blocked, and you stop, pulling the parking brakes just in time. A rare and heavy rainfall has filled a huge pothole in the road and cattlemen are watering their herds. You are in Sudan heading south, and things are going to get worse. You have a drop and pickup in Uganda, a drop and pickup in Mombasa, with drops in Burundi, Rwanda or The Congo. You simply don’t boogie through all of this while listening to an audio book, because what you find in the middle of the road isn’t going to be all dead possums and yellow paint, if there were even a surface to paint.

Imagine that driving in the U.S. were the “good old days,” even those days of no AC, busted roads, spotty phone service and capricious law enforcement. Now triple all of the above, and you’re driving through parts of Africa today.

The U.S. has 48 contiguous states that vary widely, but Africa consists of 52 countries with different languages, cultures and ethnic differences, in addition to diverse governments. We American drivers often grumble about having to drive through states or counties where regulations are tight and enforcement frequent, but professional African drivers would consider our conditions a piece of cake. Beyond having the skills and guts to drive a big rig, which sets all truckers apart from “citizens” in every country, the average African driver must summon patience and courage to such a degree, that anyone slightly less desperate for work would never get behind the wheel.

One skill requirement a rookie African driver must learn quickly is how to judge whether the uniformed men forcing you off the road or stopping you at a checkpoints are officials or bandits. And even when they are official, they may be corrupt, or worse, immoral. African drivers must decide, “Do I run the roadblock up ahead or stop? Can I offer a bribe without giving away how much extra money I have on hand to handle bribes up ahead?” In the U.S., truckers are tested for things like alcohol. In Africa, what does not get tested is law enforcement, and bribes are about as normal there as keeping a log book is here.

Also compounding the African driver’s gauntlet of dangerous obstacles is the tribal card. Here, tribal differences—Mexican versus Puerto Rican, African-American versus Italian-American, et cetera—rarely escalate beyond verbal insults. In Africa, a tribal confrontation on the road could mean death.

Mombasa is the largest port in East Africa and serves not only Kenya but also Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Southern Sudan and Uganda—all landlocked. Of more than 100,000 miles of road, roughly 10 percent in Kenya are paved. Damaged and washed-out roads in East Africa boost run times, as do ruined tires, busted springs, bent axles and frequent accidents. Weight regulations, when enforced, are at the whim of poorly supervised, poorly paid officers. Since trucks are usually owned by small companies and profits are meager, overloading is common. Consider what 80,000 pounds is like on trucks that do not have enough axles to spread the weight.

Truck and tire maintenance in Africa also sports a different dimension. In an article that appeared in the New Yorker, Ted Conover writes that when “trucks have punctures, as they say in East Africa, the turnboys must repair them. And when that’s done there are mechanical problems, which the turnboys must attend to as well; one of the perks of being a driver is that the driver gets to stay clean. Each driver’s turnboy is responsible for their particular truck: he maintains it mechanically, guards it at night, warms it up in the morning (in colonial days, he turned the crank that started the motor, hence “turnboy”), and even does the cooking if there’s no restaurant around.” That cooking, by the way, is usually done on a charcoal grill stored on the truck, and we’re not talking “shrimp on the barbie” here, but stuff like corn porridge in a pot. And turnboys: that would just be a curiosity in the states.
At border crossings, which are frequently closed at night, there may be a hundred trucks lined up along the roadsides, with men grouped under some of the trailers, often sleeping on mats while holding hands. Shabby bars and brothels with names like “Paradise” and “Joy Land” abound in these areas and are owned by “Henry the Fourth” aka HIV. While the men rest outside, hawkers selling sunglasses, food, fake designer watches and “dead people clothing” shuffle by. They are here because truckers have more money than anybody else. That could be two hundred bucks a month plus some expense money, with turnboys lucky if they get a third as much. The “dead people clothing” is usually stuff picked out of piles of clothes at seaports, donated by Americans and Europeans, and the good items are so welcome in the landlocked countries of Africa that the common belief in rural areas is that people must have died for such clothing to have been given away. The prices rise as the items work their way inland.

Drivers can earn extra money by buying extra fuel or consumer items on one side of a border and selling them for a profit on the other side. Regardless of what the official cargo is, there is little reciprocality between countries, and often type and quantity of goods being transported must pass evaluation and inspection on both sides of the border, with fines paid accordingly. It is not unusual, when money is being wired to pay a fine, for the driver to have to return to the other side of the border to cash the check sent by his company or to convert the currency.

American drivers count their time away in days or weeks, but African drivers can spend months away from their native country, much of it negotiating and waiting at border crossings. On the road again, they drive through dense forested areas or bleak desert areas where searing temperatures turn into bone-numbing cold at night.

When trucks are mired in long waits at border crossings, or traffic is disrupted because of floods or civil war, the effect this has on life in many parts of the interior can be terrible. Prices rise, and refugees at camps riot because their food rations are cut. Except for the polar ice caps, much depends on trucks in Africa as it does everywhere else on the planet. Despite the trucking variables, however, rail service is often distrusted as being even more unreliable and schedules less flexible. Trucks do about 70 percent of cargo hauling from Mombasa and other ports.

As part of being over-the-road, trucks often carry fresh drinking water barrels, mounted high, which are filled before a long trip. On the road, when the water supply is deemed fairly safe, the turnboys will fill the truck’s water barrel by hand using smaller containers, which they haul back and forth from the well. Back on the road, in rural areas, 20 mph can be a common speed hour after hour, and these speeds make it easy for bandits to come rushing out of nowhere and take over the rig.

I could go on, but in this short article, it is impossible to describe the post colonial-era continent as a whole. These few examples regarding East Africa are only meant to illuminate some of the extreme contrasts between trucking there and here.

Besides, at this point, any American trucker who has been creatively imagining himself as a trucker in Africa is likely now plotting an equally imaginative escape via the local air service. Just a note for realism’s sake—in an African aircraft, don’t be surprised if before takeoff the pilot leads the passengers in prayer for a safe flight.

And now, upon return to your plush-seated, air-conditioned, electronically-tracked cab with comfy sleeper, where you can lay down to rest with near ninety-nine percent certainty that your load won’t be hijacked in the night, maybe things will seem a bit easier for us truckers on this side of the world.