Trucking Through the AIDS Belt
The red dirt road is so slick with rain that the trucks stacked along either side look as if they might simply have slid off. Pools of muddy water fill the center. All thirty or forty trucks are pointed one way: toward the border crossing a few hundred yards down the road—toward Tanzania. Most have come to this place—a Kenyan settlement called Isebania—from Mombasa, where there is a port, or from Nairobi, where there is an oil depot. The weekend has stopped their progress: the customs offices are closed. There is no traffic except for the back and forth of turnboys attending to a group of four semi rigs with royal-blue tractors hooked up to long white shipping containers. The trucks have punctures, as they say in East Africa, and the turnboys must repair them. And when that’s done there are mechanical problems, which the turnboys must attend to as well.
The four drivers of this small convoy sip tea under the narrow wooden awning of one of the many one-room restaurants that line the road, and watch the muddy proceedings. One of the perquisites of being a driver is that the driver gets to stay clean. Each driver’s turnboy is responsible for their particular truck: he maintains it mechanically, guards it at night, warms it up in the morning (in colonial days, he turned the crank that started the motor, hence “turnboy”), and even does the cooking if there’s no restaurant around. The turnboys with their trucks are like Masai with their cattle, constantly attentive. When the trucks are in a group like this, the turnboys help each other out.
On my left, Malek, the driver of the truck called Fleet 10, yells to his turnboy, Stephen, to be sure to check the tubes for more than one puncture each. (The names of some of the men have been changed.) Malek then explains to me that these flats could have been avoided if the armed escort, travelling with his truck from Nairobi, had allowed them all to rest. Escorts, provided by the national traffic police, are required for any truck hauling valuable imported goods—electronics, for example, or tires, as in the case of Fleet 10. This is because of the likelihood of theft or ambush, even in a country with the relative stability of Kenya. The convoys of escorted trucks—up to thirty or forty of them—tend to travel at night, when traffic is light, typically setting off around 2 or 3 a.m. But the traffic police, in a hurry to arrive, sometimes push the drivers too hard. A driver like Francis, whose jumbo rig, Fleet 37, is seventy-two feet long, with a payload of three containers weighing a hundred tons, needs to go quite slowly or else make frequent stops to let his brakes and tires cool off in hilly central Kenya. But on this trip the policemen had insisted that he keep going. The result was several burst tires.
I did not arrive with the three trucks in the escorted convoy but instead joined them in a fourth truck, Fleet 19, which was carrying empty beer bottles. Such a load, Malek explains, does not qualify as protected cargo. It is unlike auto parts, imported liquor, or “clothes from your dead people.”
“What?” I ask.
“Yes, you know, the clothes—the clothes they sell at markets,” he says.
“But what dead people?”
“You know, the clothes they sell that have been worn by your people who now are dead—nguo za mitumba.”
It suddenly dawns on me. “Secondhand clothes.”
I see that Malek, though he is a worldly man, who has travelled on three continents, does not understand the discarding of clothes that can still be worn. In other words, he does not understand the Western practice of fashion. I don’t have the heart to explain it.
“Those clothes are very valuable, then?”
“Oh, yes,” Malek says. He takes the sleeve of his colorful print shirt between thumb and forefinger and holds it out toward me. Green stripes in the shirt match the color of his eyes; Malek has Arab blood. “Nice, isn’t it?” (I speak with the men in English, since their English is much better than my Kiswahili, the language they prefer.)
The proprietress of the restaurant comes out to refill our cups with a pot of delicious chai ya maziwa, tea with milk. Refills aren’t free, but everybody wants one. She then sets down the metal pot and leans against the doorjamb, and joins us in passing the time by watching the turnboys get filthy. A spider drops from a fold of her skirt and dangles above the concrete floor.
+ + +
A week earlier, I had been shown around a truck stop outside Nairobi—the Athi River Weighbridge Station—by a medical doctor named Job Bwayo. In the early nineteen-eighties, when Bwayo, who also has a Ph.D. in immunology, was at the University of Nairobi researching sexually transmitted diseases among prostitutes, his subjects started showing up with the symptoms of a new disease. After AIDS had been identified, Bwayo said, “I got interested in looking at the other side of the question—there must be a vector, somebody to be spreading it. There must be a man involved. Who are these men and what do they do? And it was thought that the truck drivers who cross the continent must have some role. So we went out to see.”
Truck drivers were early suspects because they not only travelled constantly but had a reputation for sleeping with the “commercial sex workers,” as researchers call them, who are a feature of wayside bars and restaurants all over sub-Saharan Africa. In 1989, Bwayo, who has received grants from the University of Washington and the University of Manitoba, opened a free clinic at Athi River for the use of drivers and others in the area—mainly women from surrounding shanties.
Blood tests on his patients found that twenty-seven per cent of the drivers were H.I.V.-positive; a later study showed that drivers coming from closer to central Africa had higher rates of seropositivity. Rwanda, for example, had a rate of fifty-one per cent; Uganda, thirty-six per cent; and Kenya, nineteen per cent. In similar studies of commercial sex workers, infection rates were found to run from thirty-four to eighty-eight per cent. Because AIDS is thought to have originated somewhere around the west side of Lake Victoria, in Zaire, Rwanda, or western Uganda (one theory is that it jumped to human beings from green monkeys, which carry a similar virus and are slaughtered for food in the area), and because long-distance trucking is this region’s main link to the outside, it was hypothesized that truckers were unwittingly transporting the virus from central Africa to the rest of the world. Today, of the fourteen million people with H.I.V. worldwide, more than eight million of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.
International aid money began to be channelled through organizations like the African Medical and Research Foundation to educate the truckers and the women they sleep with. Getting the word out was not without its problems, however. Bwayo and the drivers ruefully remember headlines such as one on the front page of a Nairobi daily announcing to a frightened nation that “truck drivers spread AIDS!” This reputation became a public-relations problem for the drivers, many of whom had enjoyed for years an aura not unlike that of the American cowboy: a man of carefree mobility who traverses unknown landscapes and survives by his wits—and, in the African case, is relatively well paid besides. But in the late nineteen-eighties the drivers started to become unhappy celebrities in the annals of AIDS research. “Oh, yes, the truckers!” said Dr. O. E. Omolo, the provincial medical officer in Mombasa, when I expressed a desire to travel with some of them in order to learn about their lives. “They are true museums of disease! Chancroid, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, AIDS—well, the list goes on and on!”
+ + +
Before the concern with AIDS, I had known of African truck drivers through brief mentions in the books of a dozen travellers who had beaten their way across Zaire, or the Sahara, or war-torn Mozambique, by hitching rides with them. Especially in the poorest or most politically unsettled countries, trucks are the only means of getting in or out, public transportation being virtually nonexistent. As travellers, it struck me, the drivers probably had no equal in Africa.
Truckers almost never drive completely across the continent, from north to south or from east to west, since the condition of roads and the politics of Africa’s fifty-three countries make it easier to ship by sea. Instead, most African trucking links the middle and the margins, plying routes from the coasts to the interior and back again. The principal ports of East Africa are Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, both on the Indian Ocean south of Somalia. From there, goods travel inland to Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, western Zaire, to southern Ethiopia, Somalia, and, in calmer times, to southern Sudan. The so-called Trans-African Highway is merely a network of paved roads that link Mombasa to Nairobi, to Kampala, and then to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, or to Kinshasa, in Zaire.
Some of the biggest competitors in this business are owned by international freight-forwarding conglomerates and are European-managed. Interfreight, a German trucking firm in Dar es Salaam, and Transami, a Belgian-run concern in Mombasa, are often favored by drivers, who say they’re better paying and better run. Better paying, in the case of Transami, which owns the trucks I’m with, means compensation that ranges from twenty-six hundred to three thousand American dollars a year for a driver, and, for a turnboy, between five hundred and seven hundred dollars. In a country like Kenya, whose annual per-capita income is three hundred and sixty dollars, this is good money. But to Transami managers, dealing with the huge capital costs of imported trucks, fuel, and parts—a set of new tires costs nearly fifteen thousand dollars, for example—drivers’ salaries are peanuts.
Salary, however, does not necessarily constitute all of a driver’s income. Wherever there are customs rules and import duties, there is money to be made getting around them. Extra fuel taken on in Tanzania, for example, can net up to a month’s salary if resold on the black market in a landlocked country. Gray parrots procured in the jungles of Zaire fetch a high price back on the coast, if they make it alive. Tanzanian maize meal increases in value over fifty per cent once it’s smuggled into Kenya.
The four Transami trucks in Isebania will travel in a loose convoy at least as far as Rwanda. Besides Malek and Francis, who has a potbelly, wears colorful silk-screened T-shirts, and loves to listen to the news on his small short-wave radio, the drivers are Sammy, a beanpole-thin member of the Kalenjin tribe, famed for its distance runners, who sports long beatnik sideburns and begins every day with a couple of wind sprints, and Bradford, the driver of Fleet 19.
A fifty-year-old veteran of the Kenyan Army, Bradford is a soft-spoken man who is meticulous in his grooming: every day, he shaves, puts on a clean button-down shirt, and polishes his black metal-toed oxfords. Unlike Malek and many other drivers, Bradford drives cautiously, which is all right with me. It is not all right with Obadiah, the turnboy. Occasionally, as we rumble out of a turn and onto a straightaway, Obadiah will shift restlessly in his seat, then wave his long arms in the air, and finally say, “O.K., now you can go faster. Faster! Haraka-haraka!“As the driver, however, Bradford rules. He tells me he has not had an accident in twenty years. He responds to Obadiah’s exasperation the same way he responds to practically any perturbation: silently, almost stonily.
Obadiah is the opposite. His liveliness, humor, and occasional swings of mood can all be seen in his animated face and in the way he moves. A man of thirty-four with a rangy build, he is better educated than his driver, having completed the Kenyan equivalent of high school. One of the things, besides my cigarettes, that pleased him most when I joined Fleet 19 was my copies of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Ngugi wa Thiong’o's “Petals of Blood”: he quickly borrowed and consumed both.
Fleet 19 is a white-and-blue British Leyland Landtrain. The number “19″ is roughly hand-painted in white on the big black front bumper. Inside the cab are hand-painted the following notices: on the dashboard, “No Smoking” and “Wear Seat Belt”; across the glove compartment, “Speed Limit 60 Kph”; and, behind the driver’s head—the only one that Bradford and Obadiah pay any attention to—”Engine Must Be Allowed to Run 5 Min Before Shutdown—200 Sh. Fine.” There is no radio, CB or other. The steering wheel and a single seat are on the right; on the left is a double seat for passengers. In between is the gearshift. The horn works from a button on the dash. The speedometer does not work. Though the passenger-side rearview mirror was smashed long ago, enough shards remain to deliver a serviceable rear view. The door it’s attached to doesn’t open from the outside and can be opened only with difficulty from the inside. The vent-window locks are broken, but that’s fine, because Obadiah and I can reach in through them and unlock the truck if Bradford is not around with the key. Stuffed underneath and behind the seats are all the clothes that Bradford and Obadiah have brought on this trip, and in the narrow slot between the seats is jammed my small duffel.
The truck is longer than an American eighteen-wheeler: the tractor has ten wheels, and the forty-foot trailer twelve more. On our trailer is a forty-foot container, which holds, along with a small amount of sheet metal, a great quantity of new Belgian beer bottles bound for a brewery in Rwanda. They make a good strong beer in Rwanda, but they do not make bottles; thus, this critical import from Rwanda’s former colonial master.
Though there is much to do before the reopening of the customs offices, on Monday morning, the work doesn’t weigh too heavily on anyone’s mind, because Kenya is the easy part of the journey. In Kenya, the roads are paved and repair facilities are close at hand, so you can traverse the country in three or four days. Communication with others, in Kiswahili or in English, is seldom difficult. Good food is available, and friends are never too far away. Travelling in convoys is nice but not essential. In Kenya, the road is known.
But at Tanzania the pavement ends, the shilling notes change from blue to red, the prices plummet. The danger quotient rises. It is like driving from Texas into Mexico. The four Transami trucks will try to travel close together. And, this being Africa, there is one major added effect: in Tanzania, the drivers and the turnboys, from multiple rival tribes and subtribes, all become Kenyans.
+ + +
Obadiah, his elbow out the window, looked as hip and natural in my sunglasses as Bradford did awkward. I was sharing the glasses because the sky had cleared as we rolled away from the border, and neither had any. “Such fine goggles!” Obadiah exclaimed. “Very yellow! So nice!”
Our plunge down a hill into Tanzania was insanely bouncy. The smooth roads of Kenya had yielded to something worse than dirt: a paved road in advanced decay, its remaining islands of asphalt rising randomly to form a thousand speed bumps. For much of the afternoon, our progress varied from five to fifteen miles per hour, Bradford perspiring as he wrestled the wheel left and right, bouncing off his seat when the old pavement lifted the truck, and Obadiah wincing to think of the tires he’d have to repair. “The road is very unfair, very harsh,” he said, shaking his head.
At the first town, we pulled over to await Malek, who had stayed back to avoid our dust. Next to a shop where we bought soft drinks stood the town’s unusual wooden welcome sign: at the top, in Kiswahili, was a pleasant “Welcome to Tarime!” and then came a skull and crossbones and the legend “Danger—Protect Yourself. There Is AIDS Here!” Tarime, Obadiah said when we were back on the road, had Tanzania’s second-largest AIDS problem. Another afflicted locale was Mwanza, a city at the south end of Lake Victoria, which we hoped to reach by the next night. The corner of Tanzania that we were entering was one of the places worst hit by AIDS in the world.
I tried to gauge Obadiah’s reaction as we talked about this situation. Four drivers he knew had probably died of the disease, he said. But it was hard to be sure. Even if there were a way for drivers to be tested, he explained, most drivers would probably not want to be: “It would only make them sad to know.” But this talk did not seem to sadden Obadiah. Instead, after a while he became philosophical. “People must die,” he told me. “If they did not, the world would be overcrowding. You could not drive. You see, when people die, other people get their jobs. If nobody died, there would be too many drivers.” Obadiah, a smart man who was the son of a truck driver, was probably well qualified to drive. But in the deteriorating economy of Kenya he was not likely to be promoted any time soon. Some turnboys were now in their forties. Then, again, if Bradford were to die . . .
I mentioned that friends of mine in the United States had died of AIDS, and said that it was not a nice way to go.
“No, it is not,” Obadiah agreed. “But there are many other ways to die.” I believe he meant that people in East Africa died of malaria, dysentery, and truck wrecks, and, of course, he was right. But to downplay the AIDS threat, and even to mention its positive side, was not the reaction I had expected.
Bradford, fifty years old in a region where the life expectancy was fifty-seven, listened to everything but said nothing.
+ + +
Together, our truck and Malek’s dwarfed the five or six buildings in a village called Utegi. Sammy and Francis were somewhere behind, but Bradford said not to worry—they would catch up in a day or so. I was surprised when we pulled over at dusk, having expected us to travel through the night, with Obadiah to share the driving. But Obadiah and Bradford shook their heads. “Many bad men in Tanzania,” Bradford said, making a gun of his thumb and index finger. “You break down at night, they shoot you.”
But they had stopped at night in Kenya, too; bad men were only part of the story. The rest, I thought, was simply that the trucking culture they were a part of considered sleeping at night the civilized thing to do. In Utegi, Bradford and Malek paid local boys a hundred shillings (twenty-five cents) each to guard the trucks overnight, and then they and I took tiny rooms in the village’s only hostel, while the turnboys laid sleeping pads across their trucks’ front seats.
We left in the morning for Mwanza, and Bradford said we would make it that evening if all went well. The dirt road, though seemingly empty, was full of wonders. Winding its way through tall brown brush on our left was a procession of people led by an old man with a big spear. “They are Luo, going to a funeral,” said Obadiah, who was himself a Luo. The spear was “to chase away death,” he explained as we passed. A few kilometres further on, where the roadway doubled as the eastern border of Serengeti National Park, we came upon baboons seated by the roadside, and soon afterward we were passed by several of the open-backed safari vehicles called “overlanders,” all of them filled with white people.
“Wazungu!” Obadiah cried out the window, and turned to me, grinning. This was a joke, because I was already known less by my name than by the term mzungu, the singular of wazungu, which is basically Kiswahili for “gringo,” with about the same hint of deprecation.
It was September, and the land, a month or two from rainy season, looked too sere to support any human life. But Africa was deceptive. Life lurked around every bend. In the seeming middle of nowhere, we saw propped up at the side of the road tall sisal bags full of charcoal. Though we had brought one bag from Kenya, to cook with, Bradford decided it would be a good idea to pick up another—prices would never be lower. We pulled over and waited. It took about five minutes for a teen-age boy to emerge from the landscape of dry grass and leafless trees to discuss the price. An hour or two later, we stopped for woven bamboo mats, a sample of which hung from the only tree for miles. Bradford explained that these were good for sitting on and for sleeping on. Carved wooden stools, the truck drivers’ lawn chairs, were next. Obadiah secured all the stuff to the front of the trailer.
+ + +
Mwanza was not the lakeside oasis I had hoped for. A small port, it appeared to be built on a huge foundation of pink dust. We kicked up clouds of it wending through town to the filling station on its far side, over principal roads, all of them dirt. The heat was oppressive, so we rolled the windows down, and our damp bodies immediately became coated, like every two-story building in town, with a layer of pink powder, which left me looking darker and Bradford and Obadiah looking lighter.
Our destination was a lone Esso station, where we would refuel with a thousand-odd litres of diesel. Much of this was to be stored in the two main tanks of the tractor, and the rest would go into tanks fitted under the sides of the trailer. But when we arrived at the station—a single working pump at the edge of a big dirt parking lot—we discovered that trucks had been lining up there for three or four days. The station was out of fuel. Bradford, maneuvering with Obadiah’s help, added Fleet 19 to the several rows of behemoths ahead of us and shut down the engine.
A few hours remained until dusk. The bamboo mats were unrolled beneath our trailer, providing a cool place to lie in the shade. In many parts of Africa, men who are friends hold hands; in a similar spirit, some of the turnboys lay with their arms across each other and snoozed. Some of the drivers sat on stools and talked. Obadiah picked up a copy of the Tanzanian weekly Business Times which he had found and soon came upon a news item that told of a crisis at one local factory: two top employees had died of AIDS, and the owners were having trouble finding replacements. (In Africa, it often happens that wealthier men, who can afford more prostitutes, are harder hit than poor men.)
“AIDS,” Obadiah said. “It is very bad around here. This part of Tanzania, all the way to Uganda, it is the worst place in the world for AIDS. I know people who work at this factory.” “ukimwi,” as the acronym reads in Kiswahili, was a word constantly on the lips of the turnboys.
Bradford and I went to buy food in the town market. He bought small bags of a number of exotic spices, and then lingered for quite a while over the apothecary stall. Nearby, several men stood next to bathroom scales; I paid to climb aboard, was told my weight, and then continued to a small shop to buy a Coke. Through the shop’s glass countertop was visible a box containing perhaps a gross of condoms in plain white cellophane wrappers. The box had no markings and no brand name, which made me think it had been donated by an AIDS program. “Are they free?” I asked. “No, they are two hundred shillings,” the shopkeeper replied. This sum took on meaning in the coming days, as I saw that a room for the night generally cost four hundred shillings, a woman for the night cost four hundred to six hundred shillings, a filling meal cost from eighty to a hundred and fifty shillings, and a bottled soft drink seventy shillings. In other words, these condoms cost a local the equivalent of seven or eight dollars apiece—a sum that would buy you a dozen in the United States.
After dropping off our groceries for the turnboys to deal with, we set about finding lodgings for the night. Malek, who said he had a local friend in whose house he could stay, offered to help us look, because he knew Mwanza. Many hotels were full, and almost all displayed AIDS-warning posters in the lobby. When the only vacancy we could find turned out to be slightly expensive, I suggested to Bradford that he and I take a double and split the cost. He wasn’t interested. This surprised me until, on our way down the stairs from the fifth floor, Malek loudly explained, “He wants his own room so he can take a woman!”
Bradford was typically silent, but once Malek had departed he struck back. “His friend here is just a woman,” he said fiercely. “He sleeps with her every time he comes here.”
It took me a while to understand that in this situation “woman” automatically signified “prostitute.” Women here didn’t sleep with you just for the fun of it. But the guys never used the word “prostitute.” To say, in a strange town, that you were sleeping with a woman was to say it all.
Bradford and I went out on the town that night. In the near-empty bar of our hotel, we had a beer and a chat with the bartender, a woman whom Bradford seemed to like. Then, at a place lit by blue lights down a side street, we sat at the bar and drank Tanzanian beer and watered-down cognac. I noticed the care with which our waitress served us the beer—a method that all waitresses in Tanzania used. Her job wasn’t just to set the bottle in front of us and rush off to the next customer. It was to place fresh glasses before us, then to set out the bottles of beer, then to wipe the dust off the necks of the long-necked bottles by putting her hand around the neck and pushing it down the bottle. (After my third beer of the night, this began to look erotic.) The waitress then tipped the glass, and poured the beer. You watched while she served you; you were meant to watch.
“Which one do you like?” Bradford asked me. He was referring to the women. I nodded toward our waitress. “You can have her, then.” I lifted an eyebrow. “She likes you.” I gave a little snort at this, but knew that what he meant was that they were all available, or probably were. Though increasingly drunk, I explained to Bradford that I was happily living with my girlfriend in New York, and wouldn’t be interested in sleeping with the waitress. I took out my wallet and showed him Margot’s picture. She was sitting on her red Schwinn Hollywood on East First Street on a hot July night, flashing a big smile. Bradford reached into his wallet for a photograph of his wife. “She is at work,” he explained. The picture showed a middle-aged woman sitting at a large, neat desk. On it were a telephone and a huge rubber stamp. She was not smiling; smiling was not the custom in photographs here.
“Did you say she is your girlfriend?”
“Then it is fine! She is not your wife.”
How to explain this? “But she is like a wife.”
Bradford looked at me pityingly, as though I had chosen a very early retirement.
I sought another approach. “Besides, you heard what Obadiah said, right? This is one of the worst places in the world
Bradford agreed with me on this. “Yes, I know,” he said. “To bring that home to your wife, to then pass it on to your children—very bad.” He had a daughter and two sons, he said. He waved his hand and shook his head. So he did understand AIDS. I felt glad, and bought us another round.
As we entered the lobby of the hotel, I was surprised by Bradford’s desire to have just one more at the hotel bar. I did not have the stamina, and so climbed the stairs to go to bed. But the wall between our rooms did not extend all the way to the ceiling, and an hour or so later I awoke to the noise of whispering voices as Bradford and someone else entered his room. The only other sound was the rhythmic, almost ultrasonic peeping of an Abyssinian nightjar. I listened to the little bird and I listened to Bradford, and I wondered, Does he use condoms? In the morning, I heard a woman speaking softly again, and as I came back from the bathroom saw her rounding the corner of our corridor, the hotel bartender, skirt whirling behind.
+ + +
Sammy and Francis and many more trucks had arrived overnight at the Esso station, wedging themselves into any unclaimed space in the parking lot, of which there hadn’t been much to begin with, and lining the road on either side. Approximately thirty trucks were now waiting for the fuel, which, when it arrived, would be pumped out of the single pump. I took out my books and prepared for a long wait.
The drivers and turnboys chatted, smoked, drank tea, went on errands, and sat guard, some of them on mats under the trailers, some of them seated in the cabs. Obadiah took his work clothes, still mud-caked from Isebania, to the communal spigot by the Esso office and washed them by hand. Half an hour later, jeans were draped over the rearview mirrors of Fleet 19, shirts over the windows, and socks and underwear over the windshield wipers, which were flipped away from the glass. So hot and arid was it that everything dried in about fifteen minutes.
The captive drivers attracted a stream of venders, selling everything from used clothing to pencils and spare parts. What caught my eye, looking down from the cab, was slices of freshly cut pineapple being paraded by on platters on the heads of young women; the mouthwatering fruit passed by inches from my face. Malek saw me staring and bought several slices. He also bought a thick bunch of succulent, sun-warmed grapes. I had the confidence born of a month of health in unhealthy places, and my hunger for produce was so fierce that I bent my rule against it: the grapes, I concluded, might be O.K. if I just squeezed their innards into my mouth, avoiding the skins, and the pineapple should be fine, assuming it had been cut by clean hands.
Other young women we saw evidently had nothing to sell. Two joined Malek in his cab, and I thought they might be old friends of his until he gestured at them and said, “Do you like these pretty girls, Mr. Teddy?”
“Very pretty, Malek! No, thanks!”
They left after a while, Malek deciding against further involvement, but others filtered through the tall maze of trailers all day long, smiling, climbing in to have a chat, going on their way. You did not need to seek the women out.
Just as I joined Stephen, Malek’s shy, retiring turnboy, to do my wash at the communal spigot, two fuel trucks drove up to the pump. All talking in the area seemed to cease as their drivers began to unreel their hoses to replenish the station’s supply of diesel. The lull was followed by the roar of engines being started in anticipation of the new fuel. Within minutes, Stephen and I could no longer speak, because of the epic rumbling coming from the grand ignition. A dark cloud of smoke gathered over the compressed mass of dirty trucks. There was a generalized jostling as those nearest the pump began inching forward, and those in the rear inched after them.
Perhaps three of the thirty trucks had fuelled up when, as quickly as it had started, the whole thing shut down. Obadiah had joined us by then, and I saw him sigh.
“What’s going on?”
“They have shut down the electricity,” he answered.
“What do you mean? Did they blow a fuse?”
“No, no, it is shut down everywhere.” He waved his arms to indicate the surrounding neighborhood. No darkened electric signs were available to corroborate his statement, but I remembered an advertisement I’d seen in the Business Times, announcing strategic power rationing. This was what it meant.
Delay, I was beginning to appreciate, was one of the few certainties of this life. There was the delay of breakdown, and of border-crossing hours. There was the delay of refuelling and the delay of bad roads. And then there were the delays that to the Africans were simply life lived reasonably; namely, twelve or more hours a day spent sleeping and resting and stopping to eat.
The drivers, because of their freedom, seemed to handle the delays better than the turnboys, who were tied down by poverty and job description. Obadiah moped, but Malek wasted no time in reverting to pleasure mode once the pump went off. “Boss! Mr. Teddy!” he called as I walked back to Fleet 19. “You will come join us? This is my friend in Mwanza!” He gestured at a shapely woman standing near him, whose dark skin was set off by a brilliant-yellow dress. She wore yellow flip-flops.
“Sure,” I said.
“We will be down the road. Bradford knows where.”
An hour or two later, as the sun was starting to set, Bradford and I were on our way to the New Gardenia, a bright-blue two-story building with a pleasant front porch set back a little from the dusty street. I had already noticed this place; it always had a good crowd. Drinking beer at a table on the porch were Malek and his friend.
“They still have rooms!” he said encouragingly. “Go inside now!”
Bradford and I walked in. The bar was full of men and women, and other women sat in upholstered chairs. Most of the lighting came from red bulbs. Bradford spoke to the bartender about rooms, and a woman appeared to show them to us.
The rooms were as run-down as the public areas were nice. On our way to the last available single, we walked through a cloud of mist from a shower stall with a broken pipe; water was hissing out loudly. The single was next door to this shower stall. The only other available room was a nearby double, with two small windows looking onto a small second-floor patio that got a lot of foot traffic, and this was more expensive. But tonight Bradford wanted to share it. The woman had us sign the register, and I puzzled over what to put under the heading “Tribe.”
“Put ‘Europe,’ ” Bradford suggested.
“Norway,” I wrote, the land of my ancestors.
The flimsy door to the room was held shut by the meagrest hook; to judge from the doorjamb, the door had been kicked or pushed in two dozen times. The beds had mosquito nets, but these were badly torn. As we unpacked a few things, I noticed a thin column of tiny ants marching across my bed.
Bradford and I went out to find dinner, but I could hardly eat what looked like a delicious omelette, because of sudden stomach cramps: it was the revenge of the fruit. We returned to the New Gardenia, where my experience of the rest of the night was aural. From my bed I picked out the voices of Malek, Bradford, and Sammy amidst the general laughing, squealing, and hollering from the bar. From the second-floor patio there came the occasional whispering of women and the bellowing of men. Near my head, mosquitoes buzzed faintly, seeking the holes in the netting over my bed; I lit a mosquito coil. Periodically, when the cassette tape at the bar was being changed, the amplified call to prayer from the local mosque drifted in the window. Around midnight, I was awakened by Bradford’s return. Soon after that, some stupid drunk began pounding on our door and yelling, “Ishmael! Ishmael!”
“He’s not here,” Bradford replied in Kiswahili. “You’ve got the wrong room.”
“Ishmael, Ishmael!” Again the pounding. Once more, I thought, and the door would fly open.
“He’s not in here!
Finally, there came silence. Then the same voice, this time yelling through the shutters from the patio: “Ishmael!”
“My name is not Ishmael!” I yelled back.
By noon the next day, because of some aggressive creeping forward by Bradford, we were pumping our fuel, hoping against hope to make it by the power-off time. “If it goes off now, we can pump the rest by hand,” Obadiah said. Using a hand pump that adjoined the electric one, he explained, a man (alternating with another man) could pump seven hundred litres in three or four hours. But we finished under electric power, and so did the others in our convoy. As a small truck from the national electric utility cut into the line at the pump right behind us, we had the last laugh: two minutes into the fill-up, the electricity went out on them.
+ + +
The next night’s destination was Shinyanga, and Malek was excited. He was Tanzanian by birth, he explained when we stopped for tea in the village of Mabuki, and much of his family lived in this region. We had to wait for our tea, and, while Bradford washed his hands in a corner of the restaurant, Malek went on to say that he was way overqualified to be a truck driver but had been reduced to it by a confidential “controversy” in his life. “You know, I used to play guitar in a band,” he said. “We played in all the clubs in Dar, all the clubs in the country. We made records! We played rock and roll, and we played soukous. We did everything.”
I somehow knew that this was true. “But then what happened?”
Bradford returned. Malek said he would tell me later. He flirted in the local language with the young woman who brought us our tea, and finally she turned away, blushing.
“See? She would!” he told Bradford. “I asked her if she would like to pack her things now and come with us,” he said to me jubilantly. He was famous in these parts, he assured me. “If someone is coming from the bush, like a monkey, he will still know me. I am like their president.” Moreover, he continued, “I know all the women! They love me here!” We might stay in Shinyanga, he added, for a day or two.
“O.K.,” I said. “For the women?”
“No, no. In Shinyanga, I get my parents’ bless on me, then I feel much better. You cannot go through the country without stop at your parents.”
Around midday, we pulled over again, in a village called Maganzo. It resembled a score of other places we had stopped in for tea: a handful of one-story buildings set far back on either side of the dirt highway, to give trucks plenty of maneuvering space. A small stand of trees wilted in the sun at one end of town. As Bradford eased the truck off the dirt road, our own wake of dust engulfed us and the venders who besieged our convoy, climbing up on the trucks’ steps to offer us the usual bread, soft drinks, and dried fish. Malek, increasingly animated at being back on his home ground, beckoned for Bradford and me to follow him.
We took seats on benches in a smoky barbecue shed. Beams of light slipped in through the slats, illuminating sides of goat hanging from hooks on the back wall. Hosts of flies jumped from the meat to us and back again. A man with a cleaver stopped hacking away at a beef carcass long enough to hear Malek order three skewers. The flies landed. He started hacking again. The flies took off.
Three men already there knew Malek, and one shook his hand, and then mine and Bradford’s; the others, who were eating, offered their forearms, and we grasped them. A boy appeared with a dish of water, and we dipped our fingers in and used a towel he offered. A bowl of salt was set down, and a bowl of chili powder. In the background, the skewers sizzled. The men licked their lips. One wiped his mouth on a sleeve and began to chat with Malek in Kisukuma, the local tongue. Malek asked me in English if I knew that there were diamond mines nearby, and explained that the mound of earth we had seen in the distance was part of them. The man spoke with Malek some more and then peered behind him and out the door. He put an oily finger back between his cheek and lower molars and withdrew something very small. He put it in Malek’s hand. It was an uncut diamond, translucent, irregular, like something you might find on the beach. He described it to Malek in low tones. Malek handed me the stone and said, “He wants twelve thousand dollars. Are you interested?” The diamond was a little larger than the seed of a grape.
Our dish of hot goat was set in front of us, and the diamond went back into the mouth.
Normally the turnboys went their own way during these rests. They found tea, or bought a few cigarettes, or just sat in the shade. They weren’t supposed to go too far, because always they were responsible for the safety of the truck. We left when the drivers decided it was time to leave, and the turnboys were to be close enough at hand to know when that was.
Bradford climbed up, restarted the engine, and then took a walk around the truck, examining the tires and everything else. I climbed in. Obadiah was not yet there, and neither was Stephen. Malek, parked in front of us, started his engine. He waited a moment. No turnboys. He started to drive off. It was a slow process. Bradford engaged first gear, too, then second. We were now going walking speed. Stephen and Obadiah suddenly appeared, smiling broadly, sprinting toward the trucks. Obadiah grabbed the tractor like a hobo grabs a boxcar, swung his door open wide, and landed in his seat. I wondered whether he wasn’t a little annoyed by the implication that Bradford would drive off without him, but that was the last thing on his mind.
"We found milk,"
he said. "It was sooo delicious. We had a big glass of it." I pictured Obadiah with his large hand wrapped around the glass of milk. He sat back and closed his eyes, then abruptly sat back up.
"Oh. And it was cold!" He gazed back at the shack where they found the precious milk.
+ + +
Malek’s next stop ws in the middle of a wide and barren plain. No human settlement was visible, nor, indeed, was any human until Bradford and I made it around to the front of Malek’s truck. There we found Malek deep in discussion with a very thin man who had been riding his bicycle on the dirt road when the monster trucks overtook him. The bicycle itself was practically invisible because of the number of live chickens tied to it: they hung upside down from the handlebars, from the tube between the handlebars and the seat, and an indeterminate number of them were stuffed into a big wooden cage over the back wheel. There were eaisly sixty pounds of chicken on the bike, probably closer to seventy-five. The man removed some from the cage to show to Malek. Malek wanted to see even more. "Hold these," he instructed me, and I grasped two flapping birds by their scaly legs.
The man and Malek struck a bargain; Bradford bought three more. Malek handed his five chickens to Stephen, who disappeared under the trailer with them. I followed. Stephen was on his knees. He had lain the chickens in the dust. He was reaching up toopen a wooden cage that had been built into the underside of the trailer. "Kwa kuku," he explained to me. "For chickens." One at a time, the birds were untied and placed in the cage.
Obadiah, meanwhile, was tying our kuku onto the back of our cab. Three-foot cords led from their legs to the exhaust pipes; the birds were meant to stand on the flat black fuel tank. Despite my disbelief, Obadiah assured me that was what they’d do. I pictured them on the bumpy roads, pictured Malek’s in the sea of dust that would be kicked up by the wheels. "How long will they live?"
"Oh, they will live a long time," he said. "They will live until we eat them."
+ + +
Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Shinyanga. As usual, the road had taken its toll: Malek’s trailer listed to one side, and he had turbocharger ills besides. “We might be here two or three days, getting these fixed,” he said happily.
The people of Shinyanga looked like Malek—lighter-skinned than Bradford or Obadiah, with a lot of Arab blood and sometimes blue or green eyes. Malek took Bradford and me on a walking tour of town and did, in fact, seem to know everybody. Assuming the role of host, he even installed us in a hotel costing a thousand shillings a night—two dollars and fifty cents, or more than double our usual tariff. Dinner, he announced, would be at the home of his cousin Walid. There was time before that to rest, and I bought a couple of beers for the turnboys.
Joining Obadiah and Stephen, I met Cromwel, a mechanic. Cromwel, aged twenty-nine, roamed Transami country in a radio-equipped Toyota Land Cruiser driven by a rotund “convoy leader” named Mwalimu. Mwalimu, a former truck driver, was now one of four lower-management trouble-shooters who zipped from country to country attending to the mechanical breakdowns, bureaucratic snafus, and other difficulties experienced by Transami drivers. The two had caught up with us that afternoon, and would provide an escort all the way to Rwanda. Though Cromwel in a way served as Mwalimu’s turnboy, he was a skilled and highly paid one. With the first beer, we talked about the trucks (of course) and the books we all were reading. Obadiah had finished the Ngugi and the Achebe and was into the Tolkien I had brought from Nairobi. He confessed he really did not care for that one. Cromwel was a fan of the thriller novelist Nelson DeMille, and was currently reading “The Charm School.”
With the second beer, the conversation turned to women, and Malek’s prodigious appetite. Obadiah and Cromwel debated whether it was natural to have a strong sex drive, and, if so, whether you should try to control it. The terms of this talk confused me. If a strong sex drive was natural, they both indicated, one should not try to control it. But if such a drive was unnatural one should control it. “Natural,” apparently meaning God-given, was the operative concept. Was Malek’s randy behavior, they asked me, natural or unnatural?
I had to shrug: I didn’t know. They debated this and other matters, finally agreeing only on the perils associated with amorous pursuits.
“I tell you, my friend!” Obadiah cried, waving his hands in the air. “You are fine until you are in a bar and drinking one or two beers, and then a woman with big buttocks walks by, and—oh my God!”
At the home of Malek’s cousin Walid, we were served a huge quantity of good food—chapati bread, fried fish, curried-chicken stew, and lamb-and-egg pie. Afterward, over small cups of strong coffee, I asked Malek to tell me more about the controversy in his life. He turned serious, and we scooted back a little from the circle of men seated on a thin rug. In a low voice, he told me that when Tanzania invaded Uganda to unseat Idi Amin, in 1978-79, he had entered the Army and become a captain in the military police. He received training in Israel and Cuba and then participated in the campaign. In its late stages, he was put in charge of some important prisoners. But, in what sounded like an admission of guilt, he said, “I made an arrangement and they escaped.” The Tanzanian Army charged him with corruption. A United Nations inquiry, however, determined that the escapees were political prisoners who had been unfairly held, and arranged for Malek to receive asylum in Kenya. That was how he and his family had come to live in Mombasa, though Tanzania was home.
This tale of exile and redemption had an epic quality that made Western life, or my life, seem humdrum. He filled in more details later, in the courtyard of our hotel, but soon became distracted by a flirtation with the waitress, and by the drinks she brought. When mosquitoes started to get bad, Bradford and I turned in.
In the morning, I asked Malek how he’d done.
“Do you know the word hanjam, Mr. Teddy?” I did not. “It means a lot of sweet nothing. It can also mean lots of work but no pay. You understand?”
“It means you struck out.”
+ + +
Mwalimu, the convoy leader, dispelled Malek’s hope of a prolonged stay in Shinyanga by insisting that we leave by the following afternoon. Dusk found us in a market town called Kahama, whose dirt square was filled completely with about twenty overnighting trucks. A fierce old man wielding a bow and arrow and a receipt book approached, eying me suspiciously. He was the askari, or night guard, of the square, and his services were compulsory. Bradford and Malek anted up. Then, after some searching, Bradford, Malek, and I secured the usual sort of lodging, and within a couple of hours Bradford and I were seated in the usual sort of bar.
This one was swarming with mosquitoes. It was off a side street near our lodging and was lighted with blue fluorescent bulbs. There was a bartender, whose bar was secured against robbers by bar-to-ceiling bars, and there were two waitresses, who wore flowing blue muumuus and, over their heads, the lovely beaded scarves known locally as kikwembe. They did not have much to do; we were about the only customers. We sat on low couches around the far, dark end of the room and stretched out our legs around low tables in front of us. For the first time, we were able to order Primus, the Rwandan beer whose bottles we were hauling. It cost nearly as much as our room, and was quite strong. As our waitress went through the serving ritual, she bent forward. Underneath the muumuu she wore nothing.
Bradford was characteristically quiet, and things were starting to feel a bit dull, when Malek entered with Sammy. Malek’s appearance somehow electrified the room. It put me in mind of his earlier incarnation as a rock and roller. Within moments, he had made Christina, our waitress, smile, blush, and then burst out laughing with some little remark. He sat down. She returned with a drink for him. He talked to her some more. “I am discussing with her how much I will teach her sexually,” he informed me. Christina’s English was not so good, so he repeated the quip in Kisukuma, and she cracked up again. “She already loves you very much,” he continued, to me. “She wants to do anything you want. I have told her that you are afraid of AIDS, and that she must just suck. She says fine.” Christina did not appear to have followed this, which was O.K. with me.
Malek and the others had by now become skilled at running interference for me with the women in bars. They explained what I felt they had come to believe—that I was overly concerned with AIDS—and they told the women not to take it personally, because this was a typical mzungu fear. Sometimes I would buy drinks for the women to show that it was nothing personal.
Outside, I asked Malek about exactly what went on when you paid to be with a woman. Did he wear protection?
“Soksi?” (That is, “socks”—slang for “condom.”) “No. But I do not put it in them. I only have them suck. You are paying them, they’ll do what you want.” The usual price was between five hundred and a thousand shillings, he said, but since he spoke their local language they’d do it for three hundred, “and sometimes they’ll even pay me.”
I liked Malek, but the subject was depressing. Often the castoffs of men who had other wives and discovered that they couldn’t afford them, these women had children to feed and no skills. Engaging even briefly in prostitution could mean that their village would refuse to take them back. A given evening at a truck stop provided only so many potential clients; if a woman were to displease them by insisting on condoms—well, plenty of other girls were willing. The same held true for anal intercourse, which many drivers requested.
We walked into another bar, nearer our hotel. Malek was immediately recognized by the bartender (“Everybody knows me!”) and bought us a round. No sooner had he told me he needed someone for the night than a woman in a silver dress appeared and jokingly upbraided him (“She is asking why I didn’t see her the last time I came through”) until he calmed her down with the usual cajoling and “words to make her laugh.” Also, apparently, a request for a date. Bradford, too, soon settled on a girl, and I went to bed.
In my room, I thought about a conversation I had had in the truck that day with Obadiah. He had been angry again at Bradford, this time for going too fast over bumps. We were smoking. Obadiah was also worried about AIDS. Whether his worries about the disease were pre-existing or were partly brought on by me, I didn’t know.
“A truck driver I know said some people don’t get AIDS and some people do, and there is no reason for it,” he said. “It is like the way some people have car crashes and some do not. Some get sick from smoking and many do not. It is life.”
“You mean you just live with it—it’s your fate.”
“But isn’t this true—that you can smoke less, drive slower, and wear a condom?”
“Yes, that is true.”
“So it’s not all black-and-white.”
“No.” He paused. “But life with precaution is no life.”
That one I had to think about. Obadiah—who if he had been brought up as I had would probably occupy some executive position—had to spend most of his best years away from his wife and kids, and within about a fifty-foot radius of a semi rig. His pleasures were smoking and, much less frequently, beer and women. “Life with precaution” would subtract from his life the two cheaper principal pleasures—and probably all three, because of the difficulty of restraint when you had a beer in your belly and a “woman with big buttocks” on your lap. His attitude of recklessness pained me, but I found it hard to condemn him for it.
On a recent flight in Africa, I had sat next to a sixty-year-old Canadian who smoked, drank, and told me he didn’t take his heart medication even though he had suffered a near-fatal heart attack the year before. This man held a doctorate in engineering. At my hotel in Nairobi, I had met a foreign correspondent for a North American daily. He was an ambitious, smart fellow who was particularly interested in the subject of AIDS, because, he explained in the bar, he had slept with women all over the world. “But I’m cutting down on the fucking now, and trying just to stick to blow jobs,” he said. Cutting down, it turned out, meant that he had had unprotected intercourse with “maybe six or seven” different women in the past three months. I said that that probably wasn’t a good idea, and he said yeah, he knew.
+ + +
The next morning, on a remote stretch of highway, Malek’s truck broke down—cylinder-head problems—and by the end of the day all four big Transami trucks and Mwalimu’s Land Cruiser were parked together by the side of the road. The two days that followed were like camping. The men spent a lot of time seated in circles beneath or next to a trailer, telling stories and drinking tea. A group of drivers paid a diplomatic call on the local goatherds, who lived in huts just around the bend. With a little warming up, they sold us delicious fresh milk for our tea, directed us to their well and to a muddy livestock-watering pond about a mile into the woods, in which we bathed, and even supplied us with chickens to augment those Malek kept in a wooden cage built into the underside of his trailer—emergency food, for occasions like this. In the morning, we heard the pipes of the boy goatherds, steering their goats around our encampment. At night, we climbed up on top of the containers, away from snakes, to lay our blankets out. And the turnboys, though they did not make a big deal about it, all slept with weapons at their sides, ranging from hatchets to tire irons. Their caution belied the idyllic look of the countryside.
All the work was done by the turnboys—they were kept busy cooking (mostly chicken or goat stew and ugali, a chunky starch dish, at which Obadiah excelled)—and by Cromwel, the mechanic. Replacing the silinda hedi was a time-consuming job for skilled hands, and Cromwel seemed to have them. The more covered with oil he got, the happier he seemed to be; there in Malek’s engine compartment, he had no boss but himself. Bad cylinder heads, he explained to me, were a fairly common problem. “Transami has a shop that does nothing but recondition them—I used to work there. But the reason these trucks break so much is that everything in them is reconditioned. You see, we do not buy new parts. They are costly and must be imported. We fix the old. They last for a while, then they break again.” He called out to Stephen to pass him a tork renchi from the tulboksi.
Part of the mzungu mystique, I came to realize, was that the faraway lands where people like me lived were the source of all this machinery—of its manufacture and design. Trucking companies there got their parts new, “factory fresh.” Somebody in mzungu-land actually got to drive trucks when they were new. Perhaps most essential, I thought, taking an unexpected pride in the fact, was that we named the trucks and named the parts.
The first afternoon, it rained, but Cromwel worked on; the truck “bonnet” provided him with a roof, and he was so coated in oil he looked waterproof. I sat in the cab and read and was tutored in Kiswahili by Francis and slept. Early the second afternoon, the skies cleared, the clothing dried, Cromwel finished, and a large hawk landed on a snake crossing the road by the trucks. It stood there for a long time, pecking away at the snake, as we watched from the cabs.
+ + +
Runzwewe, our last stop before Rwanda, was another collection of small, low buildings at a crossroads in a barren landscape. All had roofed front porches and rear courtyards and were set back far enough for rows of trucks to park in front. We arrived in midafternoon, famished, and entered a café.
The tall, thin Somali men who ran the place wore skirts. Our waiter spoke the menu: chicken, goat meat on rice, or beans. Most ordered goat meat. On the wall across from us was a portrait of Saddam Hussein; directly above our heads was an AIDS poster. It conveyed its message graphically, showing, left to right, a man in four phases of emaciation. He was practically dead in the last drawing; a cemetery with headstones underneath made the message clear. Mwalimu read the caption out loud—“Utapunguza uzito kwa muda mfupi”—and cracked a joke in Kiswahili, which I missed.
“What does it say?” I asked as the others chuckled.
“It says, ‘You’ll lose weight in a short time,’ and I said, ‘They should call it the Truck-Driver Diet.’ ”
Though it had clearly been drawn by an African hand, the poster carried a very Western message. The idea behind it was that a simple dose of correct information could make a huge difference in people’s lives. The challenge was to print up enough posters, and hang them in enough public places.
But already I could see the barriers.
“You know,” Cromwel said, musing on the poster. “Some people are immune from AIDS.”
I told him that was not known for sure.
“But they are not certain? Then I think it could be true!”
Francis said that he had heard many different stories about AIDS. “First, we were told the wazungu brought it,” he said.
“Mzungu scientists were the first to identify it, but they think it came from here,” I replied. Francis looked at me as
if to say, Well, of course they do. “Then they said that truck drivers brought it!” he continued. “There was a time when the women wouldn’t sleep with wazungu or drivers. Now they will, but they want condoms with people they don’t know.”
“Yes,” Cromwel said. “They want condoms with unmarried people. But if you talk with them and they come to trust you, then you don’t have to.”
“That’s right,” Francis agreed. “If you’re married, with kids, it’s much better. And if you are healthy.”
“You mean looking healthy,” I said. “You can look healthy but still have the virus that causes AIDS.”
Though Obadiah understood this, the others were less familiar with the idea of being infected but showing no symptoms. I explained it, realizing as I did that understanding H.I.V. infection really required a rudimentary knowledge of biology, of how infections occur—and not only an understanding of it but a belief in it, for, as they listened and I talked, I could see my words getting filed in the mental drawer labelled “Possible Explanations.”
And if you did get AIDS, Cromwel added, there was always a virgin.
“Yes, you know, if you sleep with a virgin it will often take away your AIDS,” Cromwel assured me. He knew people who had done it. I winced, and told them it wasn’t true. If you slept with a virgin, you would probably just give H.I.V. to the virgin. They didn’t argue with me, but I doubt whether they believed me. Modern medicine, which I took to be a challenge to traditional beliefs, they saw as merely a complement to them. My rebuttal of every African idea about AIDS probably sounded closed-minded to them.
Stretching my legs after the meal, I was relieved to run into Obadiah by the truck. Obadiah was educated—in other words, he saw things my way. As I walked toward him, I saw him looking warily at a mentally disturbed woman weaving around the parking lot, jabbering and shouting to herself.
“She is bewitched,” he whispered to me. I gave him a look of incomprehension. Was this a joke? But neither Obadiah nor any of the others tended to be ironic. “Yes, it is a spell. It happens often in these small places.”
I felt despairing, and the feeling was increased by the rooms we rented. They were the worst yet. There was no light—Runzwewe had no electricity—but even in the dimming daylight the sheets were obviously dirty, and the filthy pillow had no pillowcase. Bradford said his room was the same. I rested awhile and checked my watch: only 8 p.m. Maybe I could get a drink.
When I went out on the hotel porch, I could hear the faint noise of a generator and of American voices arguing: somebody had a TV. Around the trucks, it was dark, but I heard laughter on the other side and wandered over to some lantern-lit tables in front of one of the small places across the road. There a round innkeeper named Bora was joking with the drivers. They introduced me, and she continued with a story she’d been telling. It turned out that when the authorities went to the house of this man in Uganda who’d died of AIDS they found dozens of packages of unused condoms. Ah, I thought, there’s a moral here, of the right kind. But Bora went on, “And all the condoms had dates that had expired!”
Knowing murmurs circled the table, and I asked Francis to explain. “These condoms, when they are too old, contain germs,” he said. “And that’s how he got AIDS.”
“From expired condoms? That’s ridiculous.”
The woman asked Francis to translate my English. She looked hurt and offended, and replied sharply to him. “She says you should not doubt her. She knows—she is from Uganda,” Francis said.
I touched her arm and tried to have Francis explain that I did not doubt her word, merely the interpretation of the facts. I could see that this was a losing day for Western medicine. I ordered a beer, quickly drained it, and returned to my bed.
+ + +
The route to Rwanda took us over a brief but sudden ridge of red-soil mountains. The trucks groaned up the steep grades, and whined slowly down their far sides, the drivers taking it very easy: littered at every sharp turn and at the bottom of every hill were the wrecks of trucks whose drivers had been careless. Some of the wrecks were recent and spectacular. This time, Obadiah didn’t complain about Bradford’s snail’s pace.
Malek, as usual, drove the fastest, and soon he had the punctures to show for it. We all pulled over on a shoulder behind him as it started to rain, and the turnboys paired up to attend to the tires. Francis was the last in line. “You know what they say when you get punctures?” he asked me.
“They say you forgot to pay your girl this morning.”
“So who do you suppose didn’t pay today?” I asked, playing along. We had discussed this subject before, Francis explaining that, with women you knew, the gift of a “compact” (cassette tape), a bottle of perfume (Francis had gestured to his underarms), a nice T-shirt, a pair of shoes, or a length of fabric was as welcome as money. “Did Malek cause this?”
Francis shrugged. “Could have been anybody,” he said.
The final drop, into the river valley that marked the border, was scenic, and excruciatingly slow: the grade was ten per cent, and the drivers were hypercautious. Eventually, we rounded a bend that presented us with a view of a small Tanzanian customs station perched on the steep hillside, a compound of Rwandan customs buildings, across the valley, and, between them, a bridge over a wild and glorious cascade of water, identified on my map as the Chutes de Rusumo. Mist rose from the churning waters, partly obscuring dense semitropical foliage that listed toward the river from its banks. Leaving Tanzania proved to be a simple matter, but when I saw the drivers blocking their wheels and parking for the night, planning not to cross till morning, I told them I was going to walk down to the bridge and take a look.
As one, they warned me to stay. “The soldiers will shoot you,” Bradford said.
When I expressed my doubts, Francis told me what had happened to another truck he had driven in Rwanda. I suddenly remembered that at the Transami office in Mombasa, Harry Hanegraaf, a white Kenyan who was the manager of land transport, had shown me a pile of snapshots of various trucking mishaps from the past two years. There were several impressive wrecks, but the most memorable was the picture of the cab of what had evidently been Francis’s rig. It had been heavily sprayed with machine-gun fire and, from what I recalled, set ablaze. Francis told me that two years earlier his truck, as part of a convoy of government-escorted trucks travelling on the road west of the northern Rwandan town of Ruhengeri, had been ambushed by a squad of guerrillas. After stopping the trucks by blocking the highway with debris, the guerrillas told the drivers to run; they then looted the trucks and, to underscore their message, destroyed them.
+ + +
Bradford had a way of dealing with officials that drove Obadiah crazy. “He is so stupid!” he whispered vehemently as Bradford got down from the cab to open the container for the Rwandan customs man. “He sits with a face like this”—he did a good impression of Bradford’s pugnacious stare—”and pretends he doesn’t understand anything. And he thinks this will work. Well, let me tell you, it doesn’t work!”
All the paperwork had gone smoothly, if slowly, that morning, the drivers presenting their thick sheaves of bills of lading, export certifications, and identification documents at the single window. Around the side of the building, at the same time, Obadiah had helped me negotiate with the black-market money changers who swarmed around us in their furtive way. All that remained was to drive away.
But, even with the paperwork in order, the guard who controlled the barrier gate across the road had to be dealt with. Bradford’s stone-faced truculence had worked at the Tanzanian border—he had had to pay only the official duty, which Transami advanced him. But that was not going to cut it here. “You have to talk to them, to show them you are not afraid,” Obadiah said, looking in his rearview mirror. “You have to compliment them, and then you have to insult them for wanting money that is not their due. Bradford does not understand this.”
Bradford hoisted himself into his seat a few moments later, livid, and jerked the truck into gear. He had had to pay the guard twenty dollars, he said. “Out of my pocket! Transami should pay for this! But they pay me nothing!” Obadiah, wisely, kept quiet. Bradford was so mad that he ignored the gestures of two more soldiers, who rose to their feet as we approached, apparently signalling us to pull over. It was not until a third soldier, waving menacingly, made us understand that we were supposed to be driving on the other side of the road—in Francophone Rwanda, you drive on the right, and not on the left, as in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—that Bradford veered across the tarmac, still muttering. “These people! Rwanda!”
During an afternoon of low-gear rises and drops, Bradford, the tension showing on his face, swerved and shook his fist to keep kids from grabbing rides on the trailer. He even stopped the truck, ordering Obadiah to chase them away. The reason, he said, was that kids would drop off and then cross the road without looking—many were killed this way. But I also sensed that Rwanda annoyed him in general, and that keeping kids off the truck helped him keep the country at bay.
Late the second day, we reached the hilly capital, Kigali. We passed near the modern-looking center and then continued out of town to a dingy suburb, where industry and low-grade housing were mixed. This district, Gikondo, was the home of the Magasins Généraux de Rwanda (MAGERWA), the national warehouses. In order to protect international trucks from the depredations of local thieves while they awaited customs certification and did their loading and unloading, the government had carved from a hill two huge holding yards, surrounded by red cliffs and by fences topped with barbed wire. The rear yard was for flammable loads, most of them twin-trailer petrol trucks returning from fuel depots in Tanzania and Kenya. The other was for general cargo, and we pulled up at its entrance. Obadiah dropped off with our documents as armed guards unchained the metal front gates, raised a traffic boom, and waved us in. Bradford headed for a corner of the great space where one Transami truck was already parked.
As the drivers parked their trucks, I took a walk around. The surface was not pavement but hard-packed, oil-saturated soil. A concrete building housed some fetid toilets and some overflowing sinks for washing dishes and clothes. The hundred-odd trucks in the lot were divided into national ghettos, the brand of truck varying with the nationality: the largest cluster, driven by Somalis, consisted mostly of old orange Fiats, Italy having administered parts of Somalia; the next largest consisted of Mercedes-Benz (“Benzi”) trucks, operated by the big German-owned Tanzanian shipper Interfreight (Germany ruled Tanzania early in the century); trucks of Rwandan, Burundian, or Zairean registration were usually Renaults; and our vehicles, of course, a legacy of British empire, were Leyland. (One had even been used in the Falklands War, Harry Hanegraaf said.) The only other mzungu in the area was a vender of frozen Lake Victoria perch from Mwanza, who was selling the big fish from a refrigerated trailer.
The length of our stay in Kigali depended on the actions of two parties. Transami’s sister company in Rwanda, Transintra, had to supply paperwork for the loads we were dropping off and picking up; and the MAGERWA customs personnel had to accept the paperwork. The order from Transintra to unload didn’t come until the third day, Friday, and Bradford and Obadiah returned from the MAGERWA warehouses in dark moods, the container still on the trailer. There was a huge line, Bradford explained, and they didn’t come close to making it to the front. And they couldn’t try again until Monday.
There was more to it, Obadiah told me later, when his fury had somewhat subsided. To unload in any reasonable amount of time, you had to tip the clerks, had to tip the crane operator, had to tip the askari—you had to play the game. Bradford stonewalled, as usual, with the result that they got nowhere.
“I guess maybe that’s the price of being honest,” I suggested, looking for a positive side.
“It is not a question of honesty. He is just stingy!” Obadiah said.
Malek, Sammy, and Francis did unload, and Sammy and Francis took on new containers to take further into Rwanda and into Zaire, respectively, on Monday. In the meantime, we waited. Life in the yard had its interesting aspects, most notably the commercial ones. After we washed our shirts, boys came by to iron them. There were no electrical outlets around; the boys used portable black irons that had hot coals in an internal compartment. Venders of used clothing, nguo za mitumba, made the rounds night and day. Flyers advertised a showing of the film “Pretty Woman”—not in a theatre, Bradford explained, but in the house of someone who had procured a VCR and a bootleg tape. Scores of venders not so favored by the gatekeepers offered their wares right outside the front gate, besieging the drivers as though they were tourists emerging from a fancy hotel.
At night, the drivers and I would generally escape MAGERWA for a hotel known as the Snake. This was a nickname; on the room receipts it said “Logement Kalibu Gikondo.” Except for Mwanza’s New Gardenia, it was the most brothel-like of the cheap hotels we stayed at.
There were no signs. To get to the Snake, we walked up a steep road rutted by rain to the top of the Gikondo hill. Here, amid small houses, were two tall white iron gates opening onto a brick patio, the beer garden of the Snake. These gates were the sole entrance to the compound. The rooms all opened off two small courtyards farther in, past the office, and these, too, could be sealed off with iron gates. I didn’t like the place at first. A drunk yelled at me as we walked through the crowded beer garden to get to the office. A crowd gathered as we registered. I was the first mzungu they had ever had, an unsavory-looking man in an unbuttoned shirt, who was named Alphonse, explained. He handed me a receipt and a carbon copy of it. “That one you give to the girl,” he said, in French, “so that she knows what room you’re in.”
Another employee then asked gaily, “You want to fuck my wife?” His name was Andrew, and I think now that he was just giddy at his first chance to pander to a mzungu, because later he became friendly and quite helpful. The woman in question, who stood smiling, turned out to be Zairean and a great favorite of Malek’s, and of course was not Andrew’s wife at all. To my surprise, the room was clean and better than average: the Snake, I came to appreciate, was underpriced in the way of Las Vegas hotels, which make their real money off you in other ways.
Apart from Andrew and Alphonse, the personnel seemed to be women. They would serve you your Primus, then sit with you while you drank it. They would come to your room if you wanted, but there was no obligation—the usual arrangement. In the morning, the tiled showers had hot water—a miracle—the sun shone down on the courtyards, and the women became maids, who would sing as they washed up. There were good mirrors, each with an Afro comb hanging from a string. The Snake was a favored spot of the local military commanders, Andrew told me, and no one ever bothered you there.
Well, almost no one. As Cromwel, Sammy, and I were having a few beers the first night, a drunk guy stood up and insisted on sitting next to me. He wanted to thumb-wrestle. I consented, and each of us won a round. But then he wanted to yell loudly in my ear. He was high on something besides beer. Andrew interposed, telling him to lay off, and he did for a while; Andrew then said to me that the man had been smoking some kind of dope, and this was why he was so aggressive. Finally, escorted by my friends, I retired to my room. A while later, there was an insistent knocking at the door and then an “Ouvrez la porte!” I opened it. Alphonse, silk shirt unbuttoned to his waist, stood there with a young woman, who looked far more virtuous than he.
“You want?” he asked, with a big grin.
“Non, merci. Elle est trés jolie, mais non. Bonsoir.” I bolted my door. The knocking resumed. I ignored it.
But after that first night things calmed down. We checked out every morning, as was our custom (you never knew what the day would bring), but every night we returned, becoming regulars at the Snake.
After the convoy had spent nearly a week in the yard, however, everyone’s spirits began to deteriorate. Various incidents set them back. Obadiah had a pair of jeans stolen from where he had hung them to dry over the chain-link fence. Cromwel had his flashlight (torchi) stolen from the Land Cruiser while Mwalimu was inside the Transintra office. MAGERWA’s immigration officers, whom Obadiah had told that I was bwana, the boss, apparently had begun to doubt it and were looking for me. Malek started getting fevers, which reduced him to spending most of the day lying in his cab; he said it was malaria. Obadiah got diarrhea—underripe bananas, he thought. And I was with Mwalimu when he got into a fender bender with a reckless-driving government official, and had to go to the police station. There he was informed that the accident was being judged his fault.
“How could that be?” he asked.
“It would never have happened if you had not come into the country,” the policeman said.
I started noticing coffins everywhere. About eight were stacked up outside a craft shop in Gikondo, and it seemed that a small funeral procession with a rough-hewn, unfinished casket held aloft passed MAGERWA every other day. Was it AIDS or the civil war? Kigali, where between thirty and thirty-four per cent of the adults of reproductive age were infected with H.I.V., was the closest thing to an epicenter that the epidemic had. But at night we would sometimes hear shells exploding, and automatic-weapons fire. Then, one morning, a man at the Snake said he had heard on the radio that peace talks between the government and the rebels had broken off, and an invasion of Kigali was imminent. I decided it might be a good time to visit the American Embassy.
The center of Kigali, while more lively than the yard, was also much more frightening. Soldiers were everywhere; streets were sealed off for security reasons; a manned tank surrounded by foxholes was parked at a main intersection. I ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking the street, and stood up when everyone else did to watch a demonstration of perhaps forty people waving blue banners and singing. This, I was told by an American woman standing nearby, was not the rebel insurgency but a political demonstration by the newly constituted Social Democratic Party—one result of the simultaneous “opening” of Rwandan politics toward a multiparty system.
The marchers turned the corner, and we started to sit down, but then shots were fired and people outside screamed. Demonstrators began running back down the street past the restaurant. I hastened to the door, but the American woman told me to sit down. She lived in Kigali, she said, and explained that the soldiers were very nervous. A week before, she and a friend were being interrogated on the street by a soldier when the soldier’s rifle accidentally went off, sending a bullet through the narrow space between their heads. They had escaped with only a nicked ear. Today, things sounded different.
Half an hour later, she directed me to the American Embassy. Officials there gave me some details about the insurgency, showed me maps, and indicated the location of the nearest rebel stronghold, about forty-five miles away.
“Is that all?”
“Well, they were here in the city two months ago,” one official said. At least, they thought so: the possibility existed that the government had staged the gun battles for its own purposes.
An Embassy official named Larry Richter took over, and assured me that the rumor that the talks had broken down was a result of a misunderstanding; the two sides had merely concluded the latest in a series of negotiations. Richter was candid and friendly. The shooting at lunch, an employee told him, had resulted in the death of a demonstrator—nervous soldiers had fired on the procession. He thought I had more to worry about in Gikondo, where burglars dressed as policemen were said to be entering houses and beating the occupants, and where other opposition demonstrators had been brutally attacked. He warned me to be careful, and wrote down the phone numbers of his Embassy office and his residence. “Give a call if you’re still here on Sunday—we play volleyball at my place,” he said. I tucked the numbers into my back pocket.
A red motorbike-taxi took me back to the yard through an afternoon shower. But where the trucks had been there was only empty space. A driver who was parked next to the empty space told me that Fleet 19 had unloaded its beer bottles and been sent to a yard owned by Transintra, to take on cargo, and the driver’s turnboy said he’d show me where.
We walked for an hour and entered another industrial neighborhood—this one, for better or worse, largely devoid of people. The Transintra yard had an open-air repair shop and a grassy space on which were parked Fleet 19 and another Transami truck, driven by a veteran Swahili driver named Zuberi. Resting near a brick wall in the back, slowly being absorbed by vegetation, were the components of a large building crane—engine, swivel, boom segments, everything. This was to be our load, Obadiah told me sullenly—not the bags of coffee they had hoped to get for a quick trip back to Mombasa. The crane, bound for tiny Burundi, to the south of Rwanda, would add days to what already felt like a lengthy trip.
We talked until the sun began to set and swarms of mosquitoes wafted over from the marsh next door. Cromwel and I, it was decided, would go to the Snake to reserve rooms for all of us. Mwalimu offered to drive us over.
We alighted at the entrance to the MAGERWA yard, and Mwalimu sped away. When we had walked no more than twenty paces toward the steep hill leading to the Snake, two soldiers armed with carbines stopped us. They were dressed in fatigues, with jackboots and berets. One bore his rifle properly, with the barrel behind his shoulder, but the shorter one had his reversed, so that the barrel pointed up into the nose of anyone he spoke to. They appeared to be sixteen or seventeen years old, and both, it soon became evident, were drunk.
Thus began a fearful several-hour saga in which the soldiers, illiterate and unable to speak any language but Kinyarwanda, followed us to the Snake, harassed Alphonse and Andrew, and demanded that I surrender my passport and accompany them to an undisclosed location. That seemed like a bad idea, so I stalled, and took refuge in my room. Once, when they had left momentarily, Andrew came running in to say he’d heard that the surlier of the two planned to return and stab me. (Cromwel said it was too bad we couldn’t get the soldier alone “and bash his face in.”) Andrew first changed my room and later persuaded the owner of the Snake, the fattest man I had met in Rwanda, to seclude me in his personal wing of the compound. Bradford came in, too.
Several soldiers had by this point gathered at the gate to the Snake. I used the owner’s phone to call Larry Richter at his home. Not long before midnight, the owner opened his door to a small, armed contingent of tall blond men from the Embassy who grabbed me by either arm, brushed past the Rwandan militia, and spirited me away in a Mitsubishi Montero that had been left running at the gate.
For four days, I lay low at an Embassy residence, emerging only to check on the progress of the crane loading. It was delayed, in an irony that escaped none of the drivers, by the lack of a small mobile crane needed to lift the pieces of the big one onto the trailers. Then, once everything was loaded and secured, departure was delayed again by Transintra’s failure to provide a new freight manifest and other customs paperwork. In the end, we left without the paperwork, carrying only Transintra’s promise to send a courier to intercept us before we made the Burundi border.
I had nothing physical to show the drivers of my ordeal—no black eye, no stitches from a stab wound. However, filling in at an Embassy volleyball game, I had managed to mangle my right ring finger; it could no longer extend itself. A doctor at the game couldn’t diagnose the injury but said she didn’t think that the finger was broken. Seeking sympathy, I showed the injury to Obadiah, who had played volleyball at the national level in Kenya. Maybe he had seen something similar, I thought.
Obadiah looked at my hand, and then I noticed his: He didn’t even have a right ring finger.
“A container landed on it when we were loading three years ago,” he explained. “I had to miss four months of work.”
For a long time, I did not worry any more about my finger.
+ + +
To fly from Kigali to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, takes half an hour. To drive by car usually takes five to six hours—”which tells you a lot about the road,” Larry Richter had said to me. But to go by truck took us from Sunday morning to midday Wednesday, or roughly seventy-seven hours—which tells you a lot about truck driving in Africa.
By noon the second day, we had reached the remote, mountainous border. “Here is very far, very deep,” Obadiah said as we parked. A river marked the actual line, with tiny settlements on either side and lush vegetation all around. We wouldn’t be crossing right away—Transintra still had not caught up to us with the customs papers. Instead, we would wait at the border until the messenger arrived.
There were no lodgings, no real restaurants, and not much to do. Across the road from us was the dormitory of a small detachment of soldiers. I shied away from them, but Obadiah made friends. It was more peaceful here, he said, and the soldiers were nice. Bradford slept in the truck that night, and Obadiah and I underneath. When Obadiah slept outside, he put his shoes right next to his head, to keep them from being stolen. I did the same, and was awakened in the morning by a goat tugging on the salty, smelly leather of my cross-trainers.
Obadiah and I ended up the next evening in the small dark room of a woman who served us charcoal-broiled goat, unleavened bread, and tall glasses of a locally brewed banana wine called urwagwa. I had offered to buy him dinner, because I had seen his discomfort the night before when a crowd of hungry children gathered around the meal he was preparing by the side of the truck. “I cannot eat if hungry people are watching,” he said, and, in fact, he hadn’t. So now we were in a dark room, where hungry people couldn’t see us.
We drank more urwagwa, and Obadiah said that it was probably what the soldiers were drinking before they hassled me—it was common in Rwanda, and cheap. I wondered as I drank if urwagwa normally brought on that kind of ugly response, but concluded that the general situation in Rwanda—AIDS, and a civil war that had killed tens of thousands of people and displaced nearly a million—was a more likely cause. The wine engendered a certain congeniality, and Obadiah and I sat for a long while. I had told him about some pretty mzungu women at the volleyball game in Kigali, and he now asked me, knowingly, if I had “made friends” with them. No, I told him, I hadn’t, and he suggested, “They are worried about AIDS, like you!” No one, he assured me, could stop sleeping with people forever. “One day—after a month—they will want to do it,” he said. We laughed, and he lowered his voice. “Ted,” he said earnestly, “a friend of mine is sick. Are any of your pills for gonorrhea?”
What friend could it be, I wondered. And what pills were for gonorrhea? “Like penicillin?”
“Penicillin, yes, but better is amoxicillin, or tetracycline. Ampicillin, too, will work.”
I was surprised to hear the names. “No, I’m sorry,” I answered. “I don’t have those.” He didn’t bring it up again for three more days, but I started wondering just how Obadiah had got gonorrhea, if that was what had happened. Gonorrhea is one of the diseases linked with a high risk of catching H.I.V. If Obadiah had it, that meant that even the best-educated people probably weren’t using condoms. This, in turn, implied, of course, that they could well die, and along the way perhaps their wives and children. The impulse to lecture all the men, instead of just inform them, was practically overwhelming.
+ + +
The next afternoon, the messenger arrived with the papers, and two days later we reached Bujumbura. Some of the hills en route had been extremely steep; as the convoy crawled down one, Bradford and Obadiah told me about a Transami driver who, a year before, had descended too fast, lost his brakes, and killed seven people, many of them squashed by his container; it had been filled with mattresses, and they were strewn everywhere. An ambulance rescued the injured driver moments before an angry mob of villagers would have torn him to pieces.
Bujumbura lay at the bottom of the biggest and final hill, and had a far more relaxed atmosphere than Kigali, which was in some ways its sister city. It was a city at peace. Also, it enjoyed a site on the shore of Lake Tanganyika—a wide, murky sea, across which the dark mountains of western Zaire were sometimes visible. Even Bujumbura’s equivalent of MAGERWA was situated on the lake. From its blacktopped surface and through its high chain-link fence we could hear the lapping of water on the beach and see the tips of waving palm trees. At night, we heard the snuffling of hippos, which trundled up from the beach in search of choice garbage in the dump across the street. The sky, early in the morning, was filled with thousands of bats above a large tree half a mile away from us.
Bradford was annoyed at me for having done what I thought was a good deed—giving Obadiah a little money. “How much did you give him?” he demanded when he saw Obadiah smoking from an entire pack of cigarettes. (Turnboys normally bought them singly.) I told him half the actual amount, and he was still annoyed. “He will use it to get drunk!” he said angrily. “You should not give him money.” The real problem, I figured, was that their poverty was one of the things that kept turnboys near the trucks—without money, there was really nowhere else to go—and also made them beholden to the drivers. Money was the drivers’ control. I had stepped into the balance and, at Obadiah’s behest, distorted it.
I had given him nine hundred Burundi francs—the equivalent of about four dollars. With a certain amount of misgiving, I watched as he left the lot with a local driver at about 4 p.m., and waited to see if Bradford’s prophecy would come true. Would he just use it to get blasted? But an hour and a half later the two returned, a nice, sober spring to their steps. Obadiah had spent his remaining seven hundred francs, he told me without being asked, on a meningitis shot. Hadn’t I heard? There was a big outbreak of meningitis in Burundi—two hundred people had died so far. Bus transportation between cities had been halted to try to slow its spread. I had received such a shot before coming to Africa but hadn’t dreamed that I might need it. I secretly congratulated Obadiah on his caution—I hadn’t known him as well as I thought.
Though the Transintra agent had visited us and promised to try to expedite things, it looked as if this were going to be another long wait. After unloading the crane, we would have to load thirty-odd tons of coffee. But first the agent would have to locate a container to put the coffee in, and he didn’t know of any in the vicinity. The drivers rested, talked, slept.
The second day, Bradford offered to show me the way into town, but Obadiah pulled me aside as we prepared to leave.
“You know the gonorrhea?” he asked when we were alone. Not having heard more, I had assumed it had got better. “Well, it is much worse. You know—pus, and everything. That girl in Kigali was so very pretty, but—”
“What girl in Kigali?”
“I told you, the night the soldiers came and you gave me your key.” I had tossed him my room key on the way out.
“Oh, no! That was when you got it?”
“Yes! So here is what I need—tetracycline, amoxicillin, or ampicillin.” He even seemed to know the dosage in milligrams, so I had him write it all down in my notebook. And off I went.
Visiting the pharmacy put me in mind of my own health. I went by the local United States A.I.D. office, where a doctor agreed to look at my finger. By now, it was red and sore, still couldn’t extend itself, and had assumed an odd gooseneck shape. He manipulated it, said he thought I’d snapped a tendon, and suggested I consult a hand surgeon.
“Can you suggest anyone locally?” I asked.
He looked at me as though I were joking. The country didn’t have X-ray machines with the definition needed to diagnose my injury, he said, much less a specialist. “But maybe in Nairobi,” he added. I thanked him and returned to the lot.
Obadiah was thrilled to see the packets of amoxicillin capsules I had picked up for him. “Oh, you are such a nice mzungu!” he exulted. Then I handed him another purchase from the pharmacy—a small package of Prudence condoms, price twenty Burundi francs, or less than a dime. “Next time, use these,” I said, in a mock man-to-man tone. Looking at the box, he didn’t know what they were. “Open it,” I said. He pulled out the four cellophane-wrapped condoms. He still didn’t know what they were. “You don’t know?” They didn’t look any different from condoms you would buy anywhere. I opened one and removed the latex circle.
At last, there was a sigh of recognition. “Oh, yes.”
Obadiah had finished reading a well-thumbed Perry Mason mystery, “You Find Him, I’ll Fix Him,” and left it for me. I lay on my side and opened the paperback to a small card that he had used as a bookmark. On it was a paragraph in his handwriting: “Short, fat, and built like a barrel, but all the same the best description I can give her is that she reminded me of Mussolini in her size, same ruthless, jutting jaw, dark complexion . . .” This was not, I would later confirm, a passage copied from the book. Obadiah admitted sheepishly that he had written it while he was sitting, bored, in the yard that afternoon. He said the Perry Mason book had inspired him, and so had the way I was always writing things down. I told him he should write the whole book.
The winds the first night had been hot, but dry and strong enough to keep us cool. This second night, though, the breeze slowed and reversed direction; humid air from the lake poured in and soon had us soaked. It also brought a huge quantity of mosquitoes. Everyone started slapping himself and pulling a blanket or a shirt over his head, despite the swelter. Though my malaria medication was supposed to be good, it wasn’t fail-safe, so I reached into my bag and dug out mosquito repellent. Because this was the dry season, I had hardly used repellent up to this point; tonight would be a test. Others gathered around as they saw me slathering on the pungent lotion.
“What medicine is that?” Obadiah asked.
“Mosquito repellent,” I said matter-of-factly, passing some to him. He asked for directions. “You’ve never used it?” He shook his head.
The others, waiting their turn, regarded the little red bottle with such amazement that I felt like Aladdin demonstrating my lamp. Only Zuberi looked on with any recognition. “We used this in the Sudan,” he said to me. “In the Army.”
I felt a prick in my shoulder and reached back to slap it. The action left a stain of blood on my white shirt. Shit, I thought—it was one of the few “confirmed hits” I’d had since coming to Africa. And this was moments after applying the repellent. No precaution, I supposed, was a hundred per cent foolproof. Under the trucks, even with the lotion, there was still a lot of swatting going on. One unlucky mosquito bite, I thought, trying to take the drivers’ point of view, could perhaps be likened to one unlucky fuck: you’d probably already had it, and what was the incremental risk of just one more? I wondered if what had been called Africa’s fatalism wasn’t just a reasonable response to the fact that there was only so much you could do.
+ + +
I left three days later. That morning, a crowd of people had gathered on the beach of Lake Tanganyika, across the road from the truck yard. Obadiah was among them. He had an uneasy look on his face as I approached. There at his feet, water lapping over its bloated limbs, lay a corpse that had just washed up. “He was a sailor on the lake,” Obadiah reported. “They say he fell overboard three days ago when he was drunk.” I had never seen a drowned man before. He was gray, and very dead. Nobody touched him.
The crane had still not been unloaded—”Some of these shippers use our trucks to store things for free,” Bradford explained—and I had caught my bad finger on some clothing and further torn something inside it. We guessed that it could be another ten days before the truck left Burundi (it turned out to be even longer). I said my goodbyes, traded addresses, took orders for presents. Obadiah and Bradford walked me to a taxi stand, and I left for the airport.
I made it to Mombasa in a day; Bradford and Obadiah’s return trip took three weeks. Bradford’s truck and Zuberi’s, I later learned from Transami, reached home without incident; they had left Bujumbura two weeks after I did, and in the provincial town of Gitega they each loaded about thirty-five tons of coffee packed in sisal bags, like our charcoal. Other trucks from the convoy returned earlier and later. Sammy was back from Ruhengeri, Rwanda, on the twenty-third of October, soon enough to receive a promptness-incentive payment (fifteen dollars). Francis didn’t return from Goma, Zaire, until the twelfth of November. And Malek had somehow managed to break down again in Shinyanga, and would be there a while. I knew that would make him happy.
I had several questions to ask Harry Hanegraaf, of Transami, among them details of a story I had heard when we were waiting at the MAGERWA yard in Kigali. A turnboy of Zuberi’s had died there two years before, of malaria, Zuberi had told me. Malaria, of course, is endemic to the area, and everyone suffers bouts of it; women and children sometimes die of it, but grown men seldom do. Since Zuberi’s English was worse than my Kiswahili, I had had to collect this story secondhand and had heard many versions. What, I asked Hanegraaf, had really happened?
Hanegraaf said the turnboy had been dead several days when drivers brought him to the Kigali hospital from Gisenyi, on the Zaire border. The body was so decomposed, the morgue there claimed, that it could not be put in cold storage; instead—and this outraged the drivers—it was left outdoors. Transami dispatched a truck to recover the body but, realizing the awful shape it was in, finally paid to fly the corpse to Mombasa. (“It’s Africa,” Hanegraaf said, explaining the expense. “The family refused to allow the remains to be buried in Kigali.”) The family came for the corpse at company headquarters, and the casket it had been shipped in was buried at the back of the yard. (“Nobody here would touch it.”) Of course, no autopsy was done—who would ever pay for such a thing?—but Hanegraaf had an opinion about the death which differed from Zuberi’s. “That turnboy didn’t die of malaria,” he said. “He died of AIDS.”