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April 24, 2000

A trucker's life: 'I just work, work, work'

Francis Kuria, bound for Sudan, takes a break from the road as night falls. He wants to see his family.

Second in a series

By Andrew Maykuth


RONGAI, Kenya - This one-gas-station town with dirt streets and a small railroad station has little to distinguish it from other farming villages in the Great Rift Valley. It's no El Dorado. It's not Xanadu.

But for the last two days, Francis Kuria could talk of little other than Rongai. The long-distance truck driver, up to his elbows repairing his greasy diesel engine Saturday, paused and looked off in the distance: "My mind is on Rongai."

Although Kuria spends most of his nights sleeping in a 30-inch-wide bunk behind the cockpit of his Mercedes-Benz truck, Rongai is his home. It's where his wife and family live on a two-acre farm.

Moses Arap Mosoei offers a chicken for sale along the road near Burnt Forest, Kenya.
*View more photos from Day 2
Yesterday, as rain fell and night descended on the Great Rift Valley, the 56-year-old father of seven pulled his 50-foot truck containing 32 metric tons of sorghum into Rongai. He parked the truck in town and took a local minibus to his farm. It was the first time in a month he had seen his wife, Gladys.

He was going to spend all of 15 hours visiting his wife before heading out on the road again today, hauling the American food aid to northern Uganda, where it will be delivered to people in impoverished Sudan who have been displaced by that country's civil war.

"I just work, work, work," said Kuria, assisted on his truck by his eldest son, James, 21. "There is no money in Kenya, and this is what we have to do to eat."

Kuria's life of long separation from his family is typical for many workingmen in Kenya, where wage earners often leave their families on their small holdings in the country and go off to the city to make a living.

For many truck drivers, the weeks of separation and time on the road are too much of a temptation - they often keep girlfriends or other wives, a lifestyle that contributes to the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.

Kuria says he is different from most truck drivers because he does not live up to the freewheeling stereotype. He doesn't drink and he doesn't smoke. He says he doesn't see other women. He spends his nights on the road, reading his well-thumbed Bible in his native language, Kikuyu.

"I'm a muzee," he said, using the Swahili word meaning elder. "I don't mess around with other women."

Kuria is perhaps the cleanest-living truck driver in Kenya. His employer, Anwar Bayusuf, says that Kuria is the most honest driver in his fleet of 200 trucks. Bayusuf doesn't worry that Kuria will sell the tires on his truck, steal the cargo or carry somebody else's freight - typical methods that truck drivers use to pad their income.

As Kuria drove along the Trans-Africa Highway yesterday, he frowned at the young men standing on the side of the road, waving plastic fuel containers. The traders buy fuel from drivers who siphon it from their employers' trucks.

"A Christian like me cannot do that," Kuria said.

He is a cautious driver, slowing down for livestock and dogs that appear to be poised to dart into the roadway. He said he has been robbed only once: Two years ago, Somalian bandits with automatic weapons waylaid him and made off with his money, his luggage and his shoes.

Kuria is paid $170 a month in salary. He also gets living expenses when he travels, which amount to $114 for the round trip to northern Uganda, which may take two weeks.

Kuria and his son, who gets paid about a third of the driver's salary, save money by sleeping in the two bunks behind the seats of their truck. James gets the lower bunk, which is warmer because it is just above the engine.

"I don't want to stay in the hotels because of the disease," Kuria said. "This truck is my home now."

Kuria's father worked on a coffee farm owned by one of the British colonialists who settled in the land of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe.

Like many Kikuyu men, his father joined the Mau Mau revolt in the 1950s that spelled the end of the colonial era. His father fell ill and died in 1958, and Kuria was forced to drop out of school to work on a farm to help raise his three younger siblings.

"I would speak English better if my father did not die," he said.

In his early 20s, Kuria went to the capital, Nairobi, in search of a job better than farm labor. He worked as a janitor and then got a job working on a matatu, the colorful Kenyan minibuses known for their insane driving. He eventually got his motorist's license, launching his career as a driver.

In 1984, Kuria saved enough money to buy his small farm near Rongai.

He has had little chance to enjoy the farm because the same year he began driving trucks long-distance, taking cargo from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, Kenya, to landlocked countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.

Yesterday, Kuria put in a 14-hour day on the highway, leaving the town of Mtito Andei at 6 a.m., Mount Kilimanjaro visible in the distance.

Even though it was Easter Sunday, there were a fair number of truck drivers on the road - 90 percent of the traffic was commercial.

As the highway gradually gained altitude, Kuria passed red-cloaked Masai herdsmen marshaling their cows and goats. The highway eventually reached an altitude of about 5,000 feet above sea level, leveling out in a dry rangeland reminiscent of Wyoming.

Kuria drove through Nairobi, the capital, without stopping. It is the biggest city in East Africa, although it was founded only 100 years ago when the British constructed the railroad from the coast to Uganda. The city, with its thieves and filth, holds little allure for Kuria.

After Nairobi, the road reached an escarpment that beheld a spectacular view of the Great Rift Valley, where clouds in the distance unleashed sheets of rain over the tawny valley floor.

In the valley, a few zebras grazed contentedly along the highway - more hazards to the traffic.

"Do you have zebras in the United States?" he asked. "Life in the United States is different. It must be very good. Everybody is rich there. Everybody has a job, not like here."

*On to Day 3

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