THE ROAD IS VERY UNFAIR
IN 1992, I TRAVELED TO Kenya because of something I’d read in the newspaper. A report on an international AIDS conference in Amsterdam briefly mentioned research suggesting that long- distance truck drivers might be spreading the disease, by sleeping with prostitutes along the routes they plied between central Africa and the continent’s east coast, on the Indian Ocean.
At the time, most Americans knew AIDS as a disease of gay men, junkies, and Haitians. Randy Shilts’s important and influential And the Band Played On
(1987) focused on the role of a promiscuous flight attendant, Gaetan Dugas, in spreading the disease to several countries, suggesting that Dugas was the “Patient Zero” of AIDS among gay men. But AIDS was a developing story, and five years later, when I read the article on the conference, it was generally thought that the epidemic had originated among people unknown, possibly in central Africa, and that presumably it spread first not by air but by road.
My college roommate of two years, Doug Dittman, who was gay, had died of AIDS a year before I read the article. His partner, Mark, my other roommate, had become infected as well; and between Doug’s death and Mark’s illness, I found myself thinking about AIDS a lot. Other people seemed to be trying hard not to think about it (President Ronald Reagan resisted mentioning the epidemic for years), and that was something I wished I could change.When I read about the African truckers, a lightbulb went on: because of our own trucker culture, I thought, this story might interest American readers in AIDS in Africa (where it was expected to be much worse than in the USA). And it offered the chance to ride along on some trucks and see the life firsthand, which I always preferred.
A Kenyan doctor and immunologist who had co- authored the study I’d read about, Job Bwayo, met with me in Nairobi. Bwayo was a tall, soft-spoken, handsome man who had to contort to fit into the small white sedan in which he picked me up at my hotel. At the University of Nairobi, he introduced me to other researchers. Outside of town, we visited a clinic that Bwayo had set up at a weighbridge, where truckers had to stop, and— a crucial piece— he tried to set me up with a trucking firm. I was looking for a company that ran trucks from the coast to the interior of the continent and back again—the route along which, many believed, AIDS had spread from central Africa to the rest of the world. But the companies Bwayo had connections to were temporarily occupied with ferrying relief supplies up to Somalia, where a civil war raged. He suggested I might have better luck in Mombasa, the big port on the coast, where other firms had bases of operation, and so I went there.
After a couple of days in Mombasa having no success, I realized that the local yellow pages listed not just the main numbers of the big trucking firms, but also their fax lines and the names and positions of the top managers. I faxed off several letters introducing myself and explaining my mission, and the next day got a call back from the man in charge of a large Belgian-owned company called Transami. I was welcome to join one of their trucks, he said.
In fact, we soon discovered, the best prospect was a whole group of trucks that had left the day before, headed for Rwanda and possibly Burundi. I took the next bus out of Mombasa and caught up with the Transami convoy on the Kenyan border with Tanzania, at Isebania, where they were waiting to clear Customs. It was a cool, rainy Saturday, and scores of trucks were lined up along the shoulders of a muddy dirt road. Customs was closed for the weekend, and no one would be going anywhere until Monday. It took about an hour to find my truck (called Fleet 19, though it was a single vehicle). Tired and wet, I banged on the door. A man in his twenties rolled down the window, peered out, realized who I was— a radio message to a company rep on the border had alerted them—and opened the door with a smile. Obadiah Okello was tall and genial and, reaching for my knapsack, invited me into the cab. He was not, he explained, the driver. That would be Bradford Mulwa, who was “taking tea” at a tent across the way. Rather he, Obadiah, was the “turnboy,” or driver’s assistant, whose responsibility it was to guard the truck twenty-four hours a day.
Obadiah, Bradford, and I (along with four other semi- trailer rigs in the Transami convoy) traveled together for the next few weeks, slowly bouncing over the crumbling roads of westernTanzania, into war-torn Rwanda, and finally into Burundi, which was on the verge of its own civil war.The trucks stuck together mainly out of fear of robbery: they carried imported goods, manufactured items including roofing, chemicals, window glass, beer bottles, medicines, bicycles, tires, secondhand clothes, and electronics. Imported goods were by definition valuable, so much so that the triphad begun with a police- organized nighttime convoy of several dozen trucks. But once past Nairobi the police escort disappeared, leaving the drivers to their own devices.Adding to their vulnerability, the old British Leyland trucks (ours had served in the Falkland Islands war) were prone to breakdown, especially given their overloaded trailers.
For most of that first journey, there were twelve employees— five drivers, five turnboys, and, from the first breakdown in Tanzania, a mechanic and a supervisor who followed along in their own Toyota Overland Cruiser—and me. Obadiah was my favorite, and my main link to the others.
A Luo from the region east of Lake Victoria, he was opinionated and assertive (as Luos are said to be). Much of what he said seemed to require an exclamation point after it on paper. Regarding my sunglasses, which I often loaned him, he said, “Such nice goggles! So green!”; of the awful roads of western Tanzania, “The road has much corrugation!”; on the speed of Bradford, the driver, whom he felt drove overcautiously, “Haraka! Haraka!
Many of his exclamations involved his dissatisfaction with Bradford. The two could hardly have been more different. Bradford, in his late forties, had spent thirteen years in the Kenyan army. They must have been formative ones: he was disciplined and reserved. Every morning he shaved and put on a clean button- front shirt. Where Obadiah was expressive, Bradford was taciturn; he had, as far as I could tell, three facial expressions: impassive, frowning, and, rarely, slightly smiling. In his twenty years of driving big trucks, he claimed never to have had a single accident, and he attributed this to being careful and following all the rules.
To Obadiah, however, Bradford’s caution was extreme, and maddening. “That man is slow, sooo slow!” he would say. “He is slow the way he drives and slow the way he talks. He is just too slow.” More often, he would complain to Bradford directly. If the road had opened up, for example, and it appeared to be smooth sailing ahead but Bradford was in a low gear, Obadiah would start up with his harakas, as though the driver required reminding. “Overtake that man!” he would instruct, when Fleet 19 came up behind some slower vehicle and the way was clear. Occasionally Bradford would glare at him in response, but more often he would simply ignore Obadiah, because he resisted hurry. And because he could.
Slowness was also the way Bradford handled being shaken down, whether by a Customs official or by a local policeman who had set out spikes on the road in hopes of extracting a small tip. Obadiah’s approach was to banter with such extortionists, joking and pleading poverty, trying to keep everything on a genial level without acceding— or by barely acceding— to a demand. Bradford’s method was simply to stare stonily back at an official as though he didn’t get it. The net result was often the same— the officials tired of attempting to communicate with a sullen dullard— but it took a lot longer.
Obadiah also complained because Bradford didn’t do him many favors. Since drivers were at the top of the highway caste system and turnboys at the bottom, and since drivers could make so much more money (not only in salary, but in various contraband carrying and fuelselling schemes), the job entailed a bit of noblesse oblige—drivers typically bought their assistants a meal now and then, a drink, a cigarette. But unlike the other drivers he had worked for, said Obadiah, Bradford, in the three years they had worked together, had offered him nothing.
Obadiah occasionally got behind the wheel— when the truck needed to be moved in a parking area, for example. Other than that, I did not know what kind of a driver he would make. But, assuming he was a good driver, you could see how, in a different kind of business culture, he would quickly rise above a man like Bradford. He was eager, he was in a hurry, he was less interested in rules than in getting the job done most efficiently. He was certainly better educated, having completed O-levels and some post-secondary training in marketing before leaving Luo country for the coast, on a job tip from an uncle.
That said, Bradford was perfectly nice to me, and took pains to invite me to accompany him at the various places we stopped— tea stalls, restaurants, lodgings— along our journey. I bought beers for him and he bought beers for me. But when we drank, I often thought about Obadiah, stuck back at the trucks with the other turnboys.
Over the five weeks or so we were together, I found Obadiah to be friendly, energetic, good- humored, curious, and loyal. Back home, I missed his lively intelligence and vigorous, argumentative personality. I sent him some things he’d asked for— sneakers, books— and we stayed in touch. Over the years, his occasional messages always cheered me, not only because staying in touch was difficult but because his work was dangerous, in ways both expected and unusual, and each letter was evidence that he was still alive, still driving.
In some ways, an African truck driver’s work was easy: there was little anxiety about timetables, since so much was out of thei control. Several times a day, the convoy pulled over at a roadside settlement for chai. They never drove at night: between bandits and bad roads, it was too dangerous. But on the other hand, the job was difficult: the drivers were gone from home for weeks at a time. And, typically, the turnboys were essentially tied to the truck, to protect the load, the fuel, and the tires from getting stolen. At night, they generally slept underneath or on top of the trailer, a wrench at hand for use as a weapon.
But worst of all the risks they faced was disease. At the time of my visit, malaria was still the number-one killer in sub-Saharan Africa, and all of the men I got to know had had bouts of it. Worse, though, was the disease on the horizon: AIDS, or UKIMWI, as the Swahili acronym had it, or more commonly, “slim”— short for “the slimming disease.” The drivers knew about it and worried about it, not least because research like Job Bwayo’s had resulted in some negative publicity about their profession. “LORRY DRIVERS SPREAD AIDS,” warned the tabloid headlines. Drivers took it as a slur, and maintained that few of them had, in fact, died of AIDS. When drivers died, they said, it was most often malaria, but sometimes also “pressure” (high blood pressure), diabetes, fever, tuberculosis, and “spells”—not to mention collisions and wrecks.
Not that anyone actually knew the cause of death much of the time. In those days, for most of those plying the truck routes, medical care was so rudimentary that not only did you have to go out of your way to get tested for AIDS, but when a person died, there was often no testing to see what he or she had died of. Still, research like Bwayo’s had begun to steer a lot of foreign public health money toward Africans like them. Stores sold condoms (even if they were supposed to give them away free), and shops and lodgings had pamphlets and posters about AIDS. Many of the truck stops we passed had been visited by health workers armed with condoms and diagrams.
From what I could see, however, none of this had influenced the men’s behavior much. You could have a lot of sex on the road in East Africa, and from what I could tell, the great majority of it was still unprotected. In part this was because the men were fatalistic about disease. “If I’m going to get it, I’ve already got it,” said a driver named Sami— and it was very possibly true. Others thought they could avoid AIDS by steering away from women who looked unhealthy. And many, at least in the back of their minds, believed that if they got it, they would find a way to get rid of it— through an AIDS vaccine, which the Kenyan government was said to be working on, or (and I heard this horrific opinion several times, and rebutted it every time I did) by having sex with a virgin.
Of all the men, only Obadiah, with whom I discussed the subject at length, appeared to understand that a person with HIV was infectious even when he had no symptoms of illness.
Some of their attitude was denial, but it was more than that. In many of the men’s minds, Western explanations of disease were hardly the last word; a sick driver was likelier to consult a faith healer (and believe her explanations) than a medical doctor, particularly about a condition that Western medicine could not cure. At one outdoor market where we stopped, Bradford bought a kit for snakebite from an aging healer: it was five little chips of black plastic, hand- wrapped in cellophane. Bradford related to me her instructions in careful detail: Using a knife, make three cuts near the bite. Place a piece of plastic atop each one. It will stick. When it falls off, place it in boiling water or milk. Wait until it sinks to the bottom. You’re cured!
It was hard, in any event, to blame these men for preferring not to dwell on their vulnerability to a nefarious plague.
That trip was eventful. There were numerous breakdowns, a collision in Kigali, and many nights in “lodgings” where prostitution was, well, ordinary. In remote western Tanzania, we traveled with live chickens so we’d have something to eat in case we got stranded; my job was to feed and water them. Drivers had a reputation as cowboys of a sort—independent, self-sufficient wanderers. My companions were enterprising, resilient, and protective of me.
Because of AIDS, they were in a world that was changing very quickly. But not only was Obadiah still on the road in 2003— and now as a driver— he was still with Transami. And so, eleven years later, I went back to travel again with Obadiah and see what had changed since my first visit.
Copyright © 2010 by Ted Conover. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.