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Truckin' in Africa.

The drought that has bitten so fiercely into the heart of southern Africa over the past year has meant yet another massive effort by aid agencies to stave off the starvation of millions of people. Stephen Williams, who witnessed the logistical nightmare of the drought in 1992 while reporting for the magazine Truck and Driver, describes how the same unsung heroes of the last relief effort are back on the road - Africa's aid-hauling truckers.

Love them or loath them, trucks play an important role in both industry and commerce worldwide, and Africa is no exception. I had been covering trucking stories in Africa, ranging from urban beer deliveries to militarily convoys through war ravaged Mozambique, when in 1992, the biggest story of all emerged from drought stricken southern Africa. Ships were delivering a staggering 11.6 metric tonnes of grain to ports to alleviate food shortages, and the battle was on to distribute the aid in time to save countless lives. At the front line of the struggle was the region's haulage industry, tasked with getting the aid from ports and railheads to the starving.

One such haulage company was GDC, operating out of Harare Zimbabwe. Teaming up with one of the company's drivers, Thomas Kamzunguze, the next few days were spent accompanying him in his International truck pulling drought aid from home base to Zambia. This involved a journey that crossed National Parks, home to great herds of elephant, and also the mighty Zambezi River.

As scenic as the journey was, what was truly fascinating was to hear his experiences over 15 odd years of African trucking. As a teenager he had been lured away from schooling to join the liberation forces fighting for independence in Smith's Rhodesia. He had been sent for training in the Soviet Union but on his return to Zimbabwe joined the new nation's army.

The next few years were spent in the forces as a truck driver hauling chilled food stuffs around the country's barracks, and on discharge he continued this vocation. He had trucked all over the region, hauling machinery and tobacco, copper and clothing from points as far as Zaire to the RSA and Malawi to Botswana. Like most truck-drivers he loved the work, took pride in his vehicle, and displayed all the skills that a driver requires, from home cooking at the side of the road to running repairs. He was also profoundly grateful that he could help in combating the drought afflicting his country.

The southern African region has always been prone to years of drought, and the rains failed yet again in 1995. The countries most affected by drought and in need of emergency assistance are: Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. Of the approximate 40m inhabitants of these countries, 3.5m are directly affected by drought. Once again it is up to the regions truckers to get food aid to them.

With around 200,000 tonnes of food being taken to the drought areas in 1995, that means African drivers like Thomas have already made the equivalent of over 5,000 individual journeys. That would make a convoy, nose to bumper, over 120 miles long.

African truckers, invariably men as African women have yet to break that gender barrier, are a breed apart. Consider the dangers and difficulties they confront even when on a humanitarian mission.

Outside of the Republic of South Africa they have to cope with terrible roads for long distances. Even within the RSA, with its all-weather roads, truckers have to contend with armed robbery, corrupt police seeking bribes to supplement their meagre pay, reams of paperwork and lengthy delays at border crossings, just like in any other African country.

Despite these aspects, trucking is still an attractive proposition, partly because of the desperately high unemployment rates, but also because start-up capital for small-scale indigenous haulage enterprises is relatively easy to negotiate, and drought aid haulage work is plentiful.

Many truckers are ex-army professionals and a definite esprit de corps exists within the drivers' community - often separated from their homes and families for weeks, if not months on end. It's not unusual for a trucker to stop and assist a fellow driver at an accident or breakdown without a second thought.

Trucks are rarely equipped with the creature comforts or even the working cab instruments that are taken for granted by European truckers.

Trucks tend to be old, and can be atrociously maintained, spewing clouds of black exhaust smoke, crabbing along on distorted chassis and often on tyres that have barely any tread. Many accidents are caused through brake, tyre and steering faults.

There are other not so obvious hazards to be faced. Cattle, and wildlife such as elephant and buffalo can wander across a road in the path of a truck with disastrous consequences. Baboons are also a menace wherever a truck is parked, particularity when carrying a tasty treat like maize, the main drought aid commodity and the staple food of the region. They are attracted to places like border crossings where trucks are queueing, and have learnt to tear open the heavy tarpaulin sheets covering food loads with razor sharp claws. About the only thing a driver can do is to throw stones, but things can turn very ugly if the animal retaliates. They are both amazingly fast animals, and very strong. An unarmed man would have little chance.

Because of high import duties imposed on new trucks, many are imported second hand in FKD (fully knocked down) form to be reassembled locally. Other importation methods are even more innovative. One of the largest haulage businesses in Zimbabwe for instance runs hundreds of MAN vehicles that were purchased second hand in Europe, and diven with loads to the Arabian Gulf. Here they were modified with huge fuel tanks welded to the underbelly. Filled with dirt cheap diesel, they were shipped to Mogadishu and driven overland to be imported into Zimbabwe. These are just some of the aged machines that are plying the aid route.

Yet when this new drought finally breaks, the WFP operations will still continue, and truckers will still have to brave the elements. The farmers will need plenty of time to recover, to plant new crops, harvest and replenish stocks. Trucks bringing food aid remain pivotal to their rehabilitation, and the WFP will also coordinate assistance to local farmers in planting their crops as large quantities of fertilisers will have to be bought in to replenish the top soil nutrients washed away by the first rains. The unsung heroes of the fight against drought still have plenty of work to do.
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Title Annotation:aid-hauling truckers
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:African Business
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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