Night Drivers of the Northern Corridor

Night Drivers of the Northern Corridor

We pass the wreck at around four in the morning, climbing the steep escarpment out of the Rift Valley. This one looks different from the burst tyres and burnt-out engines that litter the trading route. The cab is abandoned, and the container doors are hanging open.

‘They catch you on the taller hills. Especially the old trucks, the ones that can’t move so fast’

The driver with me, Benedict, is a ten-year veteran of the road.

‘They climb in behind the cab and cut the pressure pipes to the trailer. You stop, they break the windows. Then they take everything. Even your clothes’

In a new Mercedes with a light load, we’re not in much danger. But as Benedict flashes the high beams to pass struggling Daihatsus, I pick out the glow of campfires and people moving around behind the tree line.

Every night, a sleepless army of drivers and turn-boys runs the gauntlet between Mombasa Port and Eastern Congo. A thousand miles of narrow road menaced by bandits and police roadblocks. For most people, the only sign of their passage is what lines the shelves at Simba Supermarket. But in a region that imports almost all of its manufactured goods –  in anything from fertiliser to office furniture – they make up the backbone of the economy.

For the drivers, the big import profits are confined to the realm of wealthy bosses in Nairobi. Out on the road, what they economise are space, time, sleep, and, in their own words, life expectancy.

The Economy of Space

Benedict and I are parked on an industrial estate south of Kampala. ‘We live like soldiers’, he tells me, as we take turns showering in the workers’ bathroom behind a factory. The place mixes animal feed, and the air around it smells like hot tarmac, eucalyptus, and diesel fumes. This was a lucky find - a sympathetic gate guard, a bucket, and a running tap. It’s also a rare few minutes outside of the driver’s cabin.

Benedict’s cab is about three and a half square metres, with two seats, two bunks, and two weeks’ worth of his clothes. He keeps the space immaculate, stowing his shoes beneath the driver’s seat and dusting down the surfaces in a constant fight with the orange dust. It’s a sign of his experience, as many of the younger drivers on the road struggle with ants and cockroaches.

Steep ladders and tinted side windows give the cab a bunker-like feeling as you look down on the road. High on the back, stencilled graffiti reads ‘home is where you park it’. It’s a motto Benedict lives by, and in over a decade shipping to the Ugandan and Rwandan capitals, he’s never been downtown in either.

At the two-dozen roadblocks between Kigali and Nairobi, the truck is pored over by police and soldiers. Any crack, leak, or broken tail light could trigger a fine, negotiations, and lost revenue. Benedict is confident there are none, and that he can fix just about anything that comes up in the journey. Tucked away under the bunk bed is a private workshop of spare parts and tools. He prefers to seal the container with a heavy bolt rather than a padlock, and has two of them in the glove compartment. On top of them sits a six-inch hunting knife and about twenty dollars in small denominations of Ugandan and Kenyan shillings. ‘In case we get stuck’.

The Economy of Time 

Benedict’s company has seven Mercedes on the road. Somewhere in Nairobi a man called Kamau manages them. I picture him with three phones and his feet in the pool. It’s hard to know what’s real about Kamau. People talk in hushed tones about the man who can make a Ugandan Major apologise, or a police escort divert traffic, all from five hundred miles away. No one wants to call him, but when they do, things generally start to move.

I heard someone say there are three qualities to a good transporter: experience, liquidity, and what they called hustle – keeping things moving against the odds. Kamau has all of them, and a reputation for rapid deliveries that justifies his steep price tag. Even so, uncertainty hangs over every shipment. Will the roads be empty and the printers work? Or will the container flag up red with a revenue authority and need verification? Nothing is guaranteed and almost everything costs time.

Benedict and I don’t know we’ll be carrying a backload until the second day on the road. I’m not convinced the importer has any idea about it either. The job is from Nairobi to Kigali, then back, fast and empty, to do it over again. But given the speed of the fleet we’re bought ourselves some time. The competition is already three days behind - a big company, but lacking Kamau’s know-how. That, plus their drivers are paid by the day not by the delivery, and have no problem lingering in the roadside restaurants.

The thousand miles from Rwanda to Kenya takes anywhere between two days and a week on the road. Most of the bigger delays come down to paper work, and a slanting pile of folders shifts around in the overhead compartment. Any small irregularity can be measured in the days it holds us up. The uncertainty makes planning ahead almost impossible, and nothing, from the next shipment to a family reunion, is guaranteed. The biggest mistake, Benedict tells me, is to expect to arrive. Then you start to want to. And then something disappoints you. Better to give yourself to the road and not make plans you can’t cancel over the phone.

We load quickly, forty kilogram sacks of animal feed stacked high to the ceiling of the container. Each one shakes the cab as it lands. I’m not surprised when on the way out the weighbridge shows one of our axles is over the limit. A few local labourers redistribute it, but while we wait the thunderstorm breaks. It comes down so hard that I lose sight of the office a few feet away. When the power goes out and the street lights fade, Benedict climbs backwards and spreads himself out on one of the bunks.

‘No power, no printers’.

The Economy of Sleep

For days, we’ve lived off three hours sleep to beat the traffic. Benedict catches the odd hour waiting for weigh bridges and customs, but its patchy and the fatigue is appalling. Since the bunks have no safety belts, I sit up front whenever we’re moving. For hours at a time I struggle to keep my eyes open. High beams glare into the cab and leave streaks of light in our eyes after they pass. Benedict tells me you get used to it. He gets by on an energy drink called Rock Boom, a Ugandan take on Redbull with almost twice the caffeine.

We stop for the night in a small town in southern Uganda. By day I guess it’s home to a few thousand residents. By 1am, the central strip is gridlocked with trailers, wedged together in ranks of three and spilling over the kerb. The concentration of vehicles speaks to the dangers of parking alone. Other than a small clique of Somalis who stick together in their own campsites, I suspect that most drivers in the district are sheltering along this half mile. Even so, it’s better to be in the middle of the pack. Professional thieves make a living from spare tyres and stolen diesel, and the mandatory five-thousand-shilling protection money doesn’t go far to stop them.

We’re late arrivals and are forced into a place opposite the town’s night club. Its an open-air-and-plastic-tables kind of bar with a ten-foot speaker system. People dance in the street to auto-tuned melodies and hammering base. I wonder if they’re drivers letting off steam. Thankfully the doors give some insulation and we’re both too tired to be kept awake.

I get up at 4am, and judging by my shallow breath the cab is either running low on air or the exhaust fumes from the other vehicles are starting to seep in. Benedict opens the roof vent and we get moving, leaving behind the other truck in our convoy. The driver lost three hours in Kigali to a power steering fault. Somehow he managed to catch up with us through the night. As we say goodbye, I see his face at the window, bloodshot eyes and a look of total shell shock. ‘I know you’re there because I hear you talking’ he tells us, ‘but I can’t even see you. Let me sleep’.

Narrow Margins

As we approach the first roadblock – two bent spike strips forcing cars through a narrow bend -  Benedict rolls up my window from the driver’s seat. ‘Don’t open it’, he tells me, as officers in camouflage approach the truck. Through the reflective tint of the side windows, I can’t be seen except from some distance directly in front. With the cabin lights off, even from there I doubt I’d be much more than a silhouette.

For some time, I’d been curious whether my presence would warp our encounters with police and border agents. Would I attract more extortion, or would the driver be able to hold me up as some a kind of white talisman to ward off the road blocks? In the event, it was neither. I was invisible from the street level, and got to hear the conversations play out in full.

‘Just be charming somehow’ Benedict says, turning to roll down his window. He smiles and talks politely. He’s tired, he says, but there’s no problem with the truck. The officer threatens to find him a reason to rest. But after circling round and banging on the container, he has no choice but to wave us along. Benedict’s approach stands out from the dozens of drivers I’ve seen shouting down from their windows. They wait longer, he tells me, and they pay more.

In twenty roadblocks and two weigh bridges, money passes out of the cab just twice. The first time, an elderly officer flags us down and comes to the driver’s window. He abandons the acts and just tells us it’s cold, late, and he’d like a few hundred shillings for a tea. Benedict reaches into the glove compartment.

The second time is more revealing. Somewhere outside of Kisumu, Benedict stops the truck abruptly and gets out. Its early morning, and without any lights around us I wonder if this is just a short-call toilet break. After a few minutes have passed I step out to find him. A hundred feet away, a small car has left the road and skidded down the embankment. Undamaged but immovable, it sits on a thirty-degree slope, pressed sideways into a tree.

A family of five huddles inside, parents in the front and three small girls under a blanket in the back seat. They ask for our help, but without rope there’s no way to pull them back onto the road. Reluctantly, Benedict moves on, but with the promise to send help if he finds it.

Two or three miles later we come to a roadblock. Since we stopped without being waved, the two officers approach us with bemused expressions. Benedict explains the situation, but the police insist they can’t move from their post. There’s a negotiation, though it’s unclear whether they’ll keep up their side of the bargain. For about an hour after, Benedict can’t hide his anger.

From Mombasa to Kigali, our haulage fee is something to the tune of four thousand dollars, paid by the importer directly to Kamau. The drivers see only a fraction of this, several hundred at most. They adapt their own strategies, from the cheapest tilapia north of Lake Victoria, to the man with the face mask and the blue corolla who gives the best rates from francs and shillings.

Riding the corridor incurs a hundred small expenses – parking, security, extortion, food, mobile roaming charges, to name only a few. Considering the narrow margins of the job, drivers are reluctant to pay any of them. The worst, Benedict tells me, are repairs. Depending on the company, they can be made liable for any degradation incurred during their shift. In a beaten up Fuso that’s almost guaranteed to break down, or a Scania with import-only parts, the expense can be ruinous.

Where life is cheap

‘You can tell the bad ones by the skid marks’, Benedict tells me, pointing to streaks of black rubber crisscrossing the tarmac.

At every section of the Northern Corridor, death stalks the road. In our few days on it I counted twelve totalled vehicles at the roadside. Cars and buses destined for the scrap heap, all from collisions that - judging by the catastrophic damage - couldn’t be anything but fatal. Some are memorialised with small plaques – where fifty-one died as a bus went off a bridge, or where a fuel tanker explosion killed over a hundred. Most aren’t, and go wholly unrecorded.

The corridor’s lethality is the product of a dangerous combination of features. Most of the road is a two-lane arrangement with no central barrier. Mistimed overtakes, or the drift of sleeping drivers, almost always lead to head-on collisions. Drink driving, speeding, and vehicle maintenance are enforced only sporadically, if at all, and the oversight can generally be paid to go away. We roll past trucks on the western plains of Kenya with deep scars and dents in the fuel tankers they’re hauling. Boda motorbike drivers and fourteen-seaters show off, weaving through the larger vehicles at high speed. Even the roadblocks are a menace, appearing suddenly around blind corners and forcing emergency stops. Every spike strip I saw was twisted and bent by the cars that had gone over it.

The road is worst on the hills at night. Climbing lanes allowing the slow haulers to be passed are badly abused. Downhill traffic makes use of the uphill overtaking lane, and on the climb up, vehicles overtake out of it into oncoming headlights. On one precipitous downhill stretch, a car passing us gets caught on the wrong side of a central barrier, careering towards oncoming traffic and unable to re-merge into their lane. Miraculously, they make it the half kilometre needed to tuck back in.

These dangers of the road are built into the fatalistic language of its users. On the sides and bumpers of the vehicles, many of the stickers and graffiti slogans speak to safety, road rage, or God’s watchful eye. Meanwhile, Chinese-made cabs with the engines in the rear are known by the moniker ‘kill the driver, save the engine’.

As for us, the twenty-eight tonnes of animal feed we’re carrying mean we can’t swerve without the risk of capsizing. ‘I’d have to hit them’ Benedict tells me, as people and livestock narrowly sidestep us, jumping off the tarmac just a few metres ahead. Checking the news on my arrival in Nairobi, I see that eight people died the previous night on the same route. A Rwandan bus and small lorry in a head-on collision.  

Moving Forward

Shifting metal boxes across continents is in equal parts arduous, bureaucratic, and lucrative. It should be no surprise that the needs of the drivers aren’t the same as importers, shipping lines, and the rest of the logistics pyramid that feeds off their labour. One stop border posts and one window customs systems may speed up trade, but just a few days in the passenger seat flags up some of the more pressing needs of those behind the wheel.

Truck driving in East Africa is appallingly dangerous. A four lane road with a central divide could save hundreds or even thousands of lives every year. The same is true of better road maintenance, better and more climbing lanes, and better enforcement of wheel-hours, drink driving, dangerous driving, and mobile phone use. Better regulation of fourteen-seat Matatus, and better training for them, was being called for by dozens of the drivers I spoke to.

So was better road security. Traffic police roadblocks, ostensibly there for the safety of road users, are almost uniformly into extortion. Mobile police patrols, in vehicles moving along sections of the corridor, were cited by drivers as among their greatest needs. Done right, they could combat the bandits and some of the more reckless driving on the road, and provide safety for the victims of breakdowns and accidents. But without the political will and with so much distrust in the police already, its doubtful how much will change any time soon.

I left Benedict at a bypass junction west of Nairobi. He was excellent company throughout the long journey: an honest, kind professional in a painstaking profession. The last I saw him, he was loading tablespoons of sugar into a tea thermos and getting ready for the next run.


* People have been anonymised with pseudonyms.

Hugh Lamarque is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh