Friends serving those most despised: African long-haul truck drivers

African Friends leaders distribute masks to truckers in a 45-mile long queue at the Kenya-Uganda border.

Recently, the African leadership of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Friends Church Kenya, and Friends United Meeting made a very unusual stop in their COVID-19 relief effort. 

There have been many people in eastern Africa impacted by the poorly-timed trifecta of disasters: COVID-19, severe regional flooding, and desert locust swarms. Most relief so far has focused on those you might expect: Friends health facilities in five countries, those at greatest risk of hunger, and some struggling Friends pastors and churches in the countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Not all recipients are Quakers, as this collaboration has worked to reach the most needy and desperate. On one recent journey, the team met up with an unexpected group of recipients: long-haul truck drivers. 

The Kenyan port of Mombasa is the beginning of the journey to deliver all kinds of goods to the landlocked countries west of Kenya, with the majority of imported goods traveling by flatbed 18-wheelers. It typically takes about one week for a truck to journey from Mombasa to the furthest destinations in DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi, a distance of about one thousand miles across both Kenya and Uganda. These days, it might take two or more weeks just to reach Kenya’s western border. This means that goods, including COVID-19 testing materials, are delayed, food is spoiling, and basic supplies are running short in the countries awaiting these deliveries.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the border between Uganda and Kenya, as well as between Kenya and Tanzania, has been closed to most everyone except these supply trucks. Trucks and their precious cargo are allowed to pass through if the drivers can satisfy health protocols. COVID-19 tests happen at the port where the load originates, at random road-blocks along the way, and at border checkpoints, both when a driver leaves a country and again as they enter the next. Paperwork proving that you have had the proper tests and are not infected is required. These protocols, confusion about requirements, and mishandled paperwork are slowing border crossings so much that trucks are backed up by as much as fifty kilometers from the Kenya-Uganda border. Sometimes the drivers sit in lines so long that their COVID-19 test certificate expires before they can get to the border crossing.

In Kenya, and throughout East Africa, long-haul truck drivers are viewed with suspicion as super-spreaders of the virus. In past pandemics such as HIV and Ebola, truck drivers were accused of spreading sickness throughout East Africa. These reputations don’t die easily. All it takes is one or two truck drivers to test positive, and they are all shunned. The local people who live and work along the main roads harshly shout “Corona!” at the drivers and refuse to let them purchase needed items, come into their shops and restaurants, or use local bathrooms. There have even been threats and some incidents of violence aimed at these essential workers. Truck drivers are forced to huddle together as they prepare meals alongside the road and wait out the long back-up. They, too, are victims of COVID-19.

The team of Quaker leaders had heard about how despised and needy these drivers are. They took some time to reach out to drivers who were waiting near where they were distributing aid to a Friends health clinic. Thanks to the generosity of Quakers in East Africa, the UK, and America, the team was able to hand out safety items like masks, sanitizers, and other needed supplies to the truck drivers. They listened to their stories and frustrations. They prayed with and for these drivers. The generosity and sincere care shown by the team moved the truckers.

The team then went a step further and gathered the nearby business owners and community members. They tried to dispel rumors, strongly urging them to treat the truckers with care, reminding them that they were people in need. They also reminded the locals that these drivers had to pass more stringent health protocols than any of the townspeople. Local villagers were also reminded that these drivers carried crucial supplies that kept people alive and economies running. These actions were a meaningful witness and voice of hope on behalf of some of society’s most mistrusted members.

After the experience, FUM Africa Ministries Director John Muhanji wrote: “Please Friends, let's keep on praying for the drivers doing essential services to keep the economy going on during the lockdown in our countries. Thank you, Quakers, for standing with our neighbors in our communities. Thank you for your contribution towards this process.”

—Shawn McConaughey

For a Kenyan news story on the travails of truckers traveling from Mombasa through Kenya to other East African countries, go here.

Shawn McConaughey