On the flip side, truckers fuel the growth of future urban centres

Saturday May 16 2020

Trucks wait to enter Uganda at Malaba, border crossing.

Trucks wait to enter Uganda at Malaba, border crossing. All truck drivers crossing from Kenya must take a test for Covid-19 by Ugandan health officials. PHOTO | BRIAN ONGORO | AFP 

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Countries in the East African hinterland, especially Uganda and Rwanda, have been making very unhappy noises about long-distance truck drivers, as they have now become super-spreaders of the new coronavirus.

Said an AFP report: “Every day hundreds of trucks fan out from East Africa's main ports in Kenya and Tanzania carrying cargo to the landlocked hinterland, and fears are rising they are becoming a major vector for the coronavirus.

“Their drivers gather at truck stops, weighbridges and customs points, socialising at lodges, restaurants and with sex workers who ply the busy routes linking the port cities of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

“With most East African countries under strict restrictions to curb the coronavirus, truck drivers are among the few allowed to circulate as they ferry essential goods across the region.

"It is clear... the remaining sources of the disease are the truck drivers within Uganda and the region," Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said earlier this month.

“Truck drivers have also tested positive in Kenya, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”


All this is a reminder of something we all know; trucking corridors are the heart of the regional economy.

However, where they meet sex workers, they create a very different dynamic. And, perhaps most important, the diseases the truckers carry with them, have in a strange way over the years, tragically, been essential to that dynamic.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s as HIV/Aids ravaged our societies, once vibrant highway towns where truckers stopped in Uganda, for example, were laid to waste.

The same picture played out in many parts of the continent. Many of these towns collapsed, and were strewn with orphans. But these towns have all since rebounded, are bigger, and more prosperous.

However, the HIV/Aids pandemic wiped out two generations of sex workers. That created a vacuum, and thus the recovery of these highway towns has been partly rebuilt, on their darker sides, by a new cohort of sex workers.

These diseases have tended to alter, and in some instances, mainstream sex work.

Faced with a similar problem of coronavirus-spreading truck drivers, it was reported a few days ago that Zambia fell back to its sex workers to help trace people who had contracted new infections at the town of Nakonde, near its border with Tanzania.

Zambia’s Health minister Chitalu Chilufya, was full of praise for the sex workers, saying; "They (sex workers) are being very co-operative in our investigations, and we don't want to stigmatise or discriminate against them. They are being very useful in contact tracing."

When HIV/Aids was at its peak, prevention programmes invested vast resources working with sex workers in ways the bishops and sheikhs would never have approved before.

Additionally, because drivers go sowing their wild oats along the truck corridors, and many of the residents of these towns are social rebels who have broken away from conservative and traditional settings, outcasts, and worldly adventurers, the people born in these places are often the most “tribeless”.

These places of sin, also happen to be some of our most socially progressive corridors. Those lecherous truck drivers, are also laying down our cosmopolitan futures, so to speak.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]