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
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
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
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
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
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
is the tribal card. Here, tribal differences—Mexican versus
Rican, African-American versus Italian-American, et
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
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
must repair them. And when that’s done there are mechanical
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
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
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
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
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
hijacked in the night, maybe things will seem a bit easier for us
truckers on this side of the world.