Everyone calls us Corona, but we are also scared - driver

Rukera (in red T-shirt) bargains for a bunch of matooke at the Mirama Hills border point. Photo by Perez Rumanzi

What you need to know:

  • Highs and lows on the road. It is one thing to be a long distance driver and another to be working during the Covid-19 crisis. Perez Rumanzi finds out from Hashim Rukera, 47, who plies the Kenya –Rwanda route; what life is like on the road.

A four-day journey drive alone from Mombasa to Kigali is a tough one during Corona virus disease (Covid-19) time. Several checks mid-journey, name calling, limited access to people, structures and infrastructure as well as preparing own food, sleeping and eating from the truck one drives is a burden.

Recently, long distance truck drivers from Kenya at the Malaba border were protesting the standard operating procedures that were set by the two countries to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19. The drivers claimed that the procedures were violating human rights principles, especially the restrictions denying them opportunities to make stopovers along the way.

This caused heavy traffic jam that saw a stretch of more than 50km from the Uganda side with trucks on a standstill. These drivers make the journeys single-handedly and cannot compare life before the Covid-19 breakout and now.

Hashim Rukera, 47, has plied Mombasa- Kigali route, driving oil tankers for 15 years. Rukera says the past two months have been the toughest of his career.
“I cook my food in my vehicle. I sleep in my vehicle and I do everything else inside here. I don’t go to a restaurant or a shop because of the new health guidelines,” he notes.

This means the trucker has to carry his own foodstuffs. “I pack rice, spaghetti, cereal flour- such as maize because it is easy to prepare, and canned food because it has a long shelf life,” he explains, adding,“I carry everything I want to eat, and eat it from the vehicle because I need to protect myself and others too,”
During Ramadan, Rukera used to carry fruits such as apple bananas and vegetables to break his fast because they give a healthy boost to the body and are easy to digest.

Going about business
Since the new world order that has been occasioned by Covid-19, a journey that Rukera was sharing with a turn man has since become a lone journey. It is him and his tanker which belongs to Mount Mera Petro, a company in Rwanda.

The day we get talking at Mirama Hills border, he parks his tanker, to reload fuel from the storage tank to the main fuel tank. This takes time as he uses a small hose pipe to draw diesel from the storage box tank between the lorry and the trailer.

Meanwhile, the 47-year-old speaks with ease monitoring his fuel flow. A money changer at the border helps him to interpret the questions. Rukera speaks Kiswahili, Ikinyarwanda and French but understands Luganda and a bit of English. I choose to ask questions in Luganda while he answers in Kinyarwanda that I also understand but cannot speak properly.

The lone road
“There are many challenges on the road, my friends whose vehicles break down on the way face hardship. Imagine one alone on the road and in most cases trucks break down in isolated places. When it breaks down you must call your employer to send over a mechanic. As we speak, some trucks have been on the road for more than a month now,” Rukera says.

The biggest challenge, according to Rukera, is not being allowed to come out of the trucks, buying anything by the roadside, stopping at gazzetted points only and sleeping in their vehicles.

“I drive 600Km daily if I must reach my destination in time. This journey takes me four days from Mombasa to Kigali,” he says.

There are four gazetted stopovers from Mombasa where he picks fuel. One drives to Mai Mayo, a town 14km before Nairobi which is gazetted for truck stopovers. There, drivers park and catch a night’s snooze in the trucks. This is where they prepare some food, relax and ease themselves. They freshen up for the next journey before heading to near Kisumu where they drive to Malaba or Busia for the first Covid-19 screening test before entering Uganda.

Any health scare
Note that, in Mombasa, a temperature test is done before the drivers embark on the journey as well as at the two other points in Kenya. The real Covid-19 test is done at the Kenya-Uganda border posts only, as even inside Rwanda only temperature guns have been used for Covid tests until recently.

“We are on the frontline and everyone thinks we are the people who are spreading the virus, it hurts because we are also scared. We also fear the disease (Covid-19). We are human and I don’t think we would wish to work when everyone is in fear, but there are services that can’t stop. What we are doing is simply sacrifice,” Rukera says.

“For example, some of our colleagues are infected and when you hear that your friend has been taken for treatment, you feel like parking and giving up the job the following day.”

The father of three cannot give up because he respects the terms of the contract he signed with his employer which cannot be breached at leisure.
“We are just safe by the grace of the Lord,” he says.
Balancing work and family

Rukera’s wife and three children live in Kigali, Rwanda. He occasionally visits them only when his employers grant him permission. [He does not disclose how often that is]. Otherwise he could lose his job if the truck goes off the company surveillance grid.
On other occasions when he gets lonely, he does not allow it to get to his head.

“We are in a tricky situation. Just put yourself in my shoes, driving 1500km by yourself. It is boring and you expect anything on the road. We just play some music and drive as fast as we can,” he explains.

Some truckers are said to interact with sex workers, is Rukera unique to the situation? “I don’t know where my colleagues get time or energy to do those things!” Rukera wonders, adding, “You drive 600km and you are too tired, where do you get the time and energy to engage a woman who is not even your wife?” he wonders.

Sometimes the sex workers approach the drivers. “Some of us ignore them [sex workers] but that does not rule out the fact that, some colleagues have girlfriends in different towns. However, in this Covid-19 situation, everyone is trying hard to avoid them because you cannot tell who is carrying the virus or one who is not.”

Rukera says drivers have always been in their own world trying to avoid people who might steal their merchandise. Drivers only interact among themselves and with their trucks.

Perception and measures
More than 30,000 truck drivers have been tested since the commencement of testing at borders with at least 130 of them found positive. Since the truck drivers dominated the positive charts, there has been widespread condemnation and others ask why the cargo trucks are not stopped so that the positive cases reduce.

“We also wish we could stop the spread of Covid-19, but what can we do? Let the name calling continue. On the road people call us Corona, but we keep quiet about it. At times you wish you could react, we also have a role to play. I have not been quarantined, I have not stopped at any non-gazetted point,” says Rukera.

He says he is trying to remain safe so that the communities he passes through are safe too. However, he does not hide his displeasure about Uganda where communities are hostile and people are labelling the drivers corona.

Previously, the drivers were not allowed to enter Rwanda. However the government of Rwanda eased the regulations recently allowing the drivers to continue their journeys. This led to the testing of the drivers at Mirama Hills border post.

Previously, trucks would be parked and disinfected at the Uganda-Rwanda border. A different Rwandan driver would then take over the steering wheel to Kigali or any other destination. Or the cargo would be offloaded and transferred to a different truck for transportation to the next destination. The driver would be put under quarantine at Kagitumba until the truck is returned. The driver would normally take back an empty truck.
James Kakyafu, 82, a former truck driver resident of Ntungamo town, says castigating truck drivers should be the last thing people do.

“Ugandans know that without cargo trucks coming in, they would not get fuel and other imported goods. We have no proper railway network, our water transport is not robust and I don’t know how many airports we have,” Kakyafu explains, adding that “we are fed by these people and we must respect them.”

Edwin Muhumuza who operates a forex bureau at Mirama Hills border, says truck drivers at the border post have been the most disciplined travellers.
“The drivers use face masks and follow all the necessary precautions. They sometimes share constructive suggestions with the border officials,” he elaborates.
In western region, two points have been gazetted for the drivers to park off town to minimise interaction of the drivers with the locals from the communities. One is at Karama, eight miles off Mbarara- Kabale Road and the other at Omunshenyi, 37kilometres from Ntungamo on Kabale Road.

The drivers however say this only stigmatises them and it is not the right measure against Covid-19.
Kenneth Byonanebye, a truck driver, says for personal safety they have to embrace the guidelines though the communities are giving them too much social distance which threatens the way they operate. Byonanebye informs that all truckers have been trained to adhere to standards not only for the law but for their safety too.