18 July 2005

Kenya: Reckless Trips to Alcohol And Sex Dens Every Night

Nairobi — Alcohol, fatigue, prostitutes and dangerous lifestyles are other menaces facing long distance drivers.

"Many of them have concubines in towns along their routes. Endless drinking, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity are the norm. The majority rarely visit their homes for months on end.

A popular night spot near Mlolongo on the Mombasa highway. "Truckers come to us because of solitude, lust and too much drink. We have as many as 10 boyfriends," prostitutes say.

"Recently," says driver Peter Njau, "we took a colleague home for burial but his family and relatives rejected him. He had not been home for 10 years."

The trucking culture - marked by casual sex at various stops - exposes them to sexually transmitted diseases like chancroid, gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes and Aids.

One infamous stop is Salgaa, over 30km west of Nakuru town. Sleepy by day, this place and its 3,000 residents come to life at night.

Salgaa was previously a deserted woodland. Its truck stop was created out of fear. Rising from the town's ankles is the steep Sachangwan Hill, a part of the Rift Valley escarpment, on the Kenya-Uganda Highway.

The length of the hill is a favourite haunt of highway robbers. "Hardly any lorry goes past this hill without being attacked, even as early as 6pm. It is the most notorious black spot. So drivers and loaders stop here to drink, eat and sleep, then continue with their journey the next day," says Joseph King'ori.

Salgaa boasts 30-plus bars and butcheries. Lodgings, mostly for the drivers, cost Sh200-400 a night. Loaders earn Sh200-400 and can hardly afford them. They, therefore, guard the trucks. They have to.

One fuel cartridge or starter takes less than five minutes to steal. It costs over Sh40,000. They sleep in turns on pads laid across the front seats of the trucks. Their major form of entertainment is chewing miraa (khat), cheap liquor and "short-times" with prostitutes.

"Truckers are notorious for heavy drinking, lavish spending and womanising. Many have succumbed to Aids," says Njau, a father of one. Salgaa has 10 clinics that mostly treat patients of sexually transmitted diseases.

Driver John Njoroge shows the vulnurable power cables often targetted by robbers.

Mlolongo town on Mombasa Road, on the outskirts of Nairobi, is another truck stop. There are many Jane Kalunde is a commercial sex workers here. "Truckers come to us because of solitude, lust and too much drink. They are also heavy spenders. We have as many as 10 different boyfriends," they said.

Though truckers don't earn huge salaries, they have various ways of making extra money. A driver, for instance, can save four gallons of fuel in one trip, which is siphoned and sold for Sh4,000. He shares this with his loaders. They also transport goods for individuals at a fee. It is this extra cash flow that funds their carefree lifestyles.

Other beneficiaries are middlemen who mediate between truckers and prostitutes. The middlemen buy goods from the drivers and introduce them to "suitable" sexual partners. Middlemen also speak the local languages and are thought to know the trustworthy and "safe" (read HIV-negative women). Prostitutes use middlemen to ensure that they are paid well.

It was at Mlolongo that Dr Job Bwayo, an immunologist at the University of Nairobi, started his research on STDs among prostitutes in the early 1980s. Truck drivers were his early suspects. They not only travelled constantly but also slept with prostitutes who visited bars along the highways.

In 1989, he opened a free clinic at the Athi River Weighbridge Station. Blood tests showed that 27 per cent of the drivers were HIV positive. Drivers from Rwanda had an infection rate of 21 per cent; Ugandans, 36 per cent; and Kenyans, 19 per cent. The rate on Kenyan drivers now stands at 40 per cent, far above the national rate of 10 per cent.

Another study titled Sexually Transmitted Diseases Project by the University of Nairobi revealed that the transport industry accounts for 25 per cent of new Aids infections in the 18 to 40 year age bracket. Long distance drivers, on average, put pleasure before caution.

According to World Health Organisation and UNAids, this situation is replicated across the world. Poverty and social disruption along transport corridors fuel the flesh trade. Truckers are seen by loose women along the stops as ready sources of income.

Significant risk factors on HIV were pegged on a driver's level of education, years of driving and income. Njau says the majority of truckers have low levels of education and exposure to the outside world.

Many of them suffer from fatigue and frustration, owing to work monotony

Fr Bartholomew Michubu, a sociologist, says drivers suffer from fatigue and frustration owing to monotony of their jobs. "They release tension with women and alcohol. They are detached from their families due to the many temptations on the highways."

These result in stress and anticipatory anxiety that fuel liquor, drugs and women, as physiological adjustment mechanisms.

"Stress leads to carelessness, which is why truckers fall prey to unprotected sex. Stress lowers the immune system and worsens the conditions of infected truckers.

"Viruses thrive in unhygienic conditions and truckers are known to neglect personal hygiene," says Fr Michubu.

He adds that truckers are usually ignorant of HIV/Aids as they don't benefit from seminars. "Most of them don't believe they can contract Aids during one sexual experience."

Constant danger, long working hours and low wages result in road accidents

Truckers also have a higher risk of infertility. The Medical Journal, Human Reproduction, notes that lorry and bus cabins raise the temperature of the scrotum, which lowers the sperm count.

Such is the long distance trucker's life - exposure to constant danger, long working hours, denial of leave, poor wages, demanding shifts and erratic rest and sleep patterns. These result in drowsy driving and accidents.

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