Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | In my 31 years as a driver, I have never seen anything like this…” This was John Lubowa’s first remark as he sat down to narrate the truck drivers’ current ordeal as they transport goods across the East African region during the coronavirus crisis.
Lubowa actually wishes that trucks can be stopped until everything is fine, in what appears like a rallying call to ensure the safety of truckers.
It is not hard to see why the 51-year-old wants the job he has known for all his life stopped, at least temporarily: the ‘inhumane treatment’, he says, by other members of the public towards truck drivers is taking a toll on them.
Lubowa last made a trip from Kenya through Uganda to Democratic Republic of Congo two weeks back. At the Malaba border, he had papers that showed he had tested negative to the virus. However, clearing agents and customs officials refused to touch his papers.
“They don’t touch our papers. They just say show me entry number and they stamp.”
Lubowa works for the company that transports fuel from Kenya through Uganda to DRC. He says he has driven to DRC at the height of Ebola but was never treated like they are treated today. He is a portrait of hundreds of truckers plying our roads daily, many being looked at by the community as a weak link to the virus spread. On the Kenyan side, truckers have blocked the road entering Uganda, protesting the ‘filthy’ treatment.
The issue of truckers threatens a diplomatic row as Tanzania says the treatment they are receiving is deliberate target at their own. No parking, No Food and treated more like outcasts. Lubowa says his truck was not allowed to park anywhere on the road as community members called the police or chased them. This is so even when the driver doesn’t intend to move out of the truck.
Previously, truckers would buy a soda or a hot meal along the way and sit in their trucks and eat. It’s no more, says Lubowa. “No shop can sell you a drink. No restaurant can give you food,” he says. “One time we stopped and they poured water in the truck.”
He said they have been given a new name; Corona. As they drive past different locations, locals shout corona to refer to the drivers on the wheel.
For the drivers plying the Kenyan borders of Malaba and Busia to Kampala, the only places they can park at officially are Nakalama, RVR Mukono Kyetume, and Namboole stadium. These are places designated by the government. After Namboole, they must drive up to the border of either DRC or South Sudan.
The places designated as parking places for truckers are not convenient either. For instance, Lubowa says they are not allowed to get out of the truck even after parking. Some heavy trucks need chock wheels so they don’t move on their own. The drivers or the assistant can’t move out to put the chock wheels.
“You can’t get out to stretch a bit. You have to stay in the truck but for how long,” Lubowa wonders.
It is not usual to feel tired or sleepy on the wheel. The recommended practice is to park the vehicle, rest and then start again. But with the hostility towards truckers at the moment, they have only one place where they can do this: national parks.
“It is only the animals that don’t bother about us parking in their area,” Lubowa said. “We now stop in national parks and have the small rest we need before we continue.”
Yet for some drivers, it is proving difficult to withstand the psychological torture that comes with rejection in the community. At home, Lubowa says family welcomes him but there are constant whispers from neighbours over his presence in the area.
As drivers, he says, they have organized what they call ‘toolbox’ – a session where they sit and brief drivers, in a sort of counselling manner, so that they don’t become desperate.
Throughout out a 20-minute chat, Lubowa kept his mask on and kept a recommended distance. The government may not suspend transportation of goods across the border temporarily as he prays and he has a job to keep.
One thing is certain: like many of his colleagues, he’s just a truck driver and not a spreader of the virus.