TRUCK drivers are unsung heroes whose contribution to productivity in an economy is often over-looked. When recognition of essential workers is being made, truckers are usually conspicuously absent from the list of heroes and heroines who make the economy thrive.
More often than not, these movers of the economy are drawn in the news for the wrong reasons. A lot has been written about them being carriers of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and AIDS owing to their long absence from home and presumed carefree sexual behaviour.
Nevertheless, these are essential workers whose absence would spell doom to the production chain in any economy. To keep the wheels of the economy running, they go through a lot of challenges ranging from enduring long and winding trips as well as prolonged absence from home, sometimes at their own cost.
Apart from that, they are exposed to many criminal raids, xenophobic attacks and many risks that come with crossing borders and traversing foreign land.
A visit to Kasumbalesa Border Post recently found truck drivers who shared their challenging work experiences, especially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After being cleared by the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) officers through their public relations manager, Topsy Sikalinda, via phone, I set out towards a fleet of trucks in the truck park.
At the border, the temperature was relatively warm with a fair cloud cover amid sunshine.
In the truck park, I saw trucks with different inscriptions on the door or roof top. Some of the company names that made the read include Hakuna Matata Road Transport of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic Congo, Dharwizi Transport of Harare, Zimbabwe, Gomes Haulage of Ndola as well as Alistair Logistics of Solwezi, among many other local and international trademarks.
“Hello”, I whispered to a driver through the window of the truck as I tried my luck for an interview. Before he could answer back, I reckoned that the man was visibly exhausted. I looked straight in his wizened face, his countenance showed signs of fatigue. I detected reluctance on his part to engage in a conversation.
I quickly introduced myself to avoid being confused for a notorious alms seeker or seller of the infamous ‘Congo dust’- a potent powdered concoction from the DRC used by men to boost their libido. Such sellers are everywhere around the border area, persuading men to buy the traditional aphrodisiac.
Finally, the driver warms up to an interview and shares a number of things.
“I’m Charles Sinyama of Dharwizi Transport of Zimbabwe. I came here in Zambia and got stuck. I was delayed for a week. This is my 10th day here and I’m just returning from DRC.
“When we get delayed, we normally help each other out with necessities. But getting delayed in Zambia is better as security of our load is guaranteed. In DRC, thieves get away with it [goods] under the watchful eyes of police officers. I always count it all joy when I get back to this Zambian side from DRC without being robbed,” said Mr Simanya.
From here, I shop around for my next interview, but the driver on the Tanzanian-registered truck gives me a signal that he cannot communicate in English.
I trek eastwards towards a Botswana-registered Daf truck. No sooner had I started talking to the driver than his name was called out to move in front for clearance procedures.
After wandering for a while without finding anyone I could immediately talk to, I came across a Bemba-speaking Zambian trucker.
“I’m Bosco Kampela, a driver of Sarazi Logistics of Ndola. My home town is Luanshya. I’m just coming from Lualaba Copper Smelter in Kolwezi in DRC where I was held for two weeks,” Kampela said.
He said his trip was longer than expected because of the coronavirus screening at ports of entry.
“We were made to wait in long queues before delivery [of goods] due to health measures,” Kampela said.
He further shared that truck drivers are made to endure a lot of challenges while in transit. For example, some toilets along the way are in bad condition, making it difficult for drivers to access decent sanitation services.
After being held in the DRC for two weeks, Kampela was not going home because he was yet to deliver some goods in North-Western and Western provinces.
“I’m going straight to Solwezi then connect to Kaoma via Kasempa through Sesheke to Katima Mulilo border,” he said.
According to Kampela, contrary to what people think, not all truckers are promiscuous people. However, he agrees that prostitutes often hunt them, but there are truckers who snub such advances.
“Prostitutes will always be there. Sometimes they knock on our vehicle windows seeking attention when we are asleep. But that is a personal matter [whether or not to go for them]. They can be avoided,” Kampela said.
From here, I caught sight of another truck driver who introduced himself as Webby Chikwama of Kitwe and a driver for Alistair Logistics of Solwezi. He was about to drive off to Lusaka, but he accorded me time for an interview.
“Other challenges involve getting delayed due to change of destination and running out of mealie meal when you are in DRC. A 25kg bag of mealie meal in DRC is about K590, which is equivalent to US$30,” he said.
Chikwana had just returned from DRC, where he was held up in Kolwezi at a mine for 22 days while waiting for paperwork for his change of destination from initially being Durban, South Africa, to Lusaka, Zambia.
“Thieves are rampant in DRC. You can’t park anyhow, it means they will steal from you,” he narrated further.
The other challenge that truckers experience during their tours of duty is finding a place where they could draw water when compelled to camp at an undesignated area.
On my continued hunt, I met a Congolese driver for Muzuri Sana called Nicolas Kapeni from Lubumbashi. He speaks good English.
Kapeni, who was on his way home, was recently held up in Zambia for two weeks owing to COVID-19 screening formalities.
“I was recently delayed near Konkola Copper Mines in Chingola, Zambia, for two weeks due to COVID-19 on my way to DRC. I’m just coming back from DRC [heading] to Zambia again after delivery [of goods]. I had challenges with where to fetch water during the time I was held. Because we couldn’t walk unnecessarily as requested by health guidelines, we relied on nearby residents to supply us with water. I was buying water in a 20-litre container for K20,” Kapeni said.
After that, William Sichali and Patrick Mumba, of Chingola, who work for Solwezi-based Alistair Logistics, also shared their own tales of tedious border formalities, especially during the COVID-19 period.
The duo had just come back from Tenke in DRC. They were delivering steel bars at a mine in that country. They spent a month there, a trip that would normally take them three weeks.
“We were delayed by a week, so we have spent a month in DRC. Water at the mine is contaminated with chemicals. See these rashes on my face. These were caused by the water we were using for bathing,” Sichali said.
The two drivers are entitled to an ‘over-stay’ allowance for their prolonged tour of duty and overrunning their budget. However, the over-stay allowance can only come after about a month.
“Though we are paid what is termed as over-stay, it can only be paid after 28 days in our case. If we overrun our budget, it is only our fellow drivers who can assist us,” Sichali explained.
Apart from that, truckers have to part with their hard-earned money to oil the hands of corrupt public officers along the way.
“Immigration and police officers in some countries are unprofessional, especially in DRC, where we are coming from. If you can’t meet officers’ demands that range from US$10 to US$100, just because you’re driving a foreign truck, they are in the habit of removing your tyres or siphoning your diesel by force in full view of the public,” Sichali lamented.
Mumba suggests that to curb the harassment of truckers while on duty, the Zambian Government should establish a dry port in Kasumbalesa.
“All trucks can offload here and the Congolese trucks can collect goods from here. That way drivers from other nations will be delivering up to this point only,” he said.
And to make the truckers’ business trips comfortable, Mumba says governments in the region should build adequate truck parks like the way it is in Zimbabwe, where such facilities are furnished with washrooms.
“That way, we will not have to go to the bush to answer the call of nature in case of a breakdown or sudden closure of borders for a certain reason. How can we prevent open defecation and diseases that come with the vice when the rains set in?” he said.
Despite the challenges that truck drivers face during their course of duty, many remain dedicated to their work and are unrelenting in keeping the wheels of the economies running.
Some truckers that were found at Kasumbalesa said they love their job and it is the only work they can do. Others said they are inspired to brave their challenges because they need to fend for their families.
However, they long for the day when they will not be targets of theft, corruption and xenophobic attacks. They also look forward to a time when society will fully appreciate their contribution to their economies.
TRUCK drivers (in their vehicles) wait for clearance at Kasumbalesa Border Post in Chililabombwe.