Add it up: how long we’ve spent hunched over in the backs of trucks travelling across Africa. Hours. And hours. Days.
In Tanzania, Samweli picks us up in Sumbawanga town.
6pm: Samweli goes round the little circle twice, shouting, “Hello my fliendies!” as if we’re old mates. Excitedly, he requests we join him on his journey. “Pole pole,” he says, “abnormal load!”
8pm: We’re in a tavern with Samweli’s entourage drinking Safari, a local beer considered slightly lower class. As Samweli said, he’s driving an abnormal load. This requires a safety car driven by Timothy, a mechanic Midas, and a woman. With a big laugh Samweli introduces her as his wife.
Timothy and the wife are silent, their English is minimal. Midas is gentle and the butt end of all the jokes. His love for soft drinks is considered almost criminal.
10pm: The social life of a trucker strongly centres on taverns, which line all the main trucking routes. An African truck journey resembles a western pub crawl, only it’s your entire life.
Everyone’s a bit babelaas. Samweli seems to know his limits and heads off to bed with his female companion. “We wake at four clocks!” he says, showing us an alarm clock and pointing at 6. After triple checking we’re still confused and head to our cheaper motel. As we leave we’re warned, “Four! Be here at four, or we leave!”
4am: We’re back. Loud snores from his room confirm our suspicions. Either Samweli was drunk or he can’t tell the time. We think it may be both.
6am: Samweli & Co, begin to wake. Midas is washing at an outside tap with a cloth and bar of soap. Samweli is excited to see us. “Aaah good, I was worry you no come. Sleep long.” The trucks are all lined up, each one a shrine to some god or soccer team. Samweli’s truck is personalised like all the others. He’s a Chelsea fan, and on the back is a life-sized David Luiz with his arms outstretched celebrating a goal. Turns out we have to ride in the safety car as the mechanic has to be with the driver.
8am: Each driver has his own way of doing things. Some stop at every possible opportunity. Samweli doesn’t. With his abnormal load things are so slow he has no choice; he must cover the distance each day. I’m hungry and need to pee.
We’re treated to new versions of the many road stories we’ve already heard along the way. We take the stories with various degrees of salt: ‘the truck driver who got eaten by the giant snake’; ‘the driver who died in his freezer’; ‘the Congolese policemen who fines you if your tyres don’t match’. That we can definitely believe.
10am: We stop for brunch; classic chapati and chai. In case we don’t stop again, we stock up on peanuts and bananas. Samweli stocks up on beer. We leave Samweli’s wife at the stop and he invites me to join him in the cab now that there’s space. Midas is pleased I’m joining them, “Maaayi fliendie Lukaaaas,” he says as I climb into the truck. Samweli is at an ATM; he returns with a wad of cash. I’m sure it’s his ‘bribery allowance’. Fines in Tanzania range from legitimate offences to ludicrous made up problems such as being fined by a speed camera which is permanently stuck on 130km/h, or having a dirty truck. Either way it’s easier to bypass the hassle and slide some money into the policeman’s hand.
2pm: Samweli’s boss has phoned and says he must get to Dar in three days. Averaging 40km/h, he needs to drive 14 hour days. We might not stop till evening.
Yet the job’s deadlines don’t stop Samweli from his usual time wasting wheeler dealing. These sideline activities include:
- courier services for a range of private packages destined for Dar. He’s already picked up three bags of charcoal; two bunches of bananas and a whole clucking family of chickens.
- selling/buying of diesel to/from roadside sellers/buyers who siphon/fill tanks with hosepipes. Buying cheaper fuel is bad for the truck but it’s still cheaper. Selling fuel is a quick buck made.
- the most common money-spinner; lifts for passengers like ourselves.
4pm: We approach our first weighbridge. For Samweli this presents a problem. His truck is carrying a bulldozer and he’s almost two tons overweight. His chances of not being impounded are slim. So we stop a few kilometres before and dismantle a portion of the machine which is given to another truck driver along with a money-filled handshake. At the weighbridge we’re a few hundred kg’s overweight, and so for the next 15 minutes we all whack dried mud off the vehicle. Amazingly we lose most of the weight and another money handshake seals the deal.
5pm: Samweli is singing his own praises when suddenly we grind to a halt and his mood slumps. “Tyre is go flatty!” he cries pitifully. Jordan is instructed to break branches off a tree and put them in the road: standard breakdown warning. Robs and I remove the shredded rubber. Midas replaces the tyre. The rim is a bit messed from driving on it. Midas pulls out a huge hammer and smacks things into shape.
8pm: Another weighbridge. This time bribery is refused. Samweli’s dropped lip tells the story. No more dirt can be removed and it’s too late to make clever plans. We sit on the curb in a slump and for now, Samweli concedes defeat. Soon though, he is beckoned by the tavern across the street and off he goes, happy to oblige.
Tomorrow will come tomorrow. Somehow, then, he will find the front of his bulldozer, and deliver the chickens, charcoal and bananas. Never mind the mzungus. These are, however, future problems and for now he will focus on the present. A beer or two, or twenty. Who knows, he might even find a new wife for the evening.