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April 27, 2000

Drivers give a city life -- and death

Traffic fuels the economy of a Ugandan border town. But with it comes HIV.

Fifth in a series

By Andrew Maykuth

MALABA, Uganda - Francis Kuria is a pious man who spends the nights tucked into the bunk of his tractor-trailer, reading the Bible. The same can't be said of most of the "trailer men" who pass through this gloomy border city.

As dusk settled yesterday on East Africa, some of the drivers of the more than 100 trucks stranded at the border by customs delays wandered into Malaba's commercial district, attracted by the siren call of bars with names like the Libra Club, Leisure Pub, Friends Pub and the Valentine Hotel.

Kuria, a Kenyan driver who is hauling a 35-ton cargo of American relief food to war victims in southern Sudan, does not drink and has no interest in frequenting the brothels. "Those places are filled with disease," he said.

But other men are willing to risk contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"A driver needs to have a friend, a rest," said Edward Ndelo, head of the Malaba local government council. "Nature is just something you can't control."

Zene Adongo of Malaba, Uganda, works to educate women about HIV. She is the women's representative to the local government council.
*View more photos from Day 5
More than a decade has passed since Uganda emerged as one of the world's epicenters for AIDS. Yet even the Ugandan government's much-praised efforts to raise awareness about AIDS prevention appear to have only slightly curbed risky behavior at truck stops, which are among the most common sites of AIDS transmission.

In Uganda, where one in 10 adults has HIV and more than a million have died from the AIDS epidemic, the public regards truck drivers as prime carriers of the virus.

Condoms are widely available at brothels, but the prostitutes and local health workers say that men shun them.

"Most truck drivers don't use condoms," said Zene Adongo, the women's representative to the local government council.

The spread of AIDS in Africa by truck drivers is well-documented - infection rates along transportation corridors are much higher than in rural areas. According to a study conducted by the International Transport Workers Federation in Uganda last year, bar workers, traders and truckers are two times more likely to be killed by AIDS than agricultural workers in the outlying areas.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to truck drivers," said Malene Mikkelsen, a researcher with the U.N. AIDS office in Kampala. "They're blamed for the spread of disease, hassled by the police and underpaid. They can wait for days or even months at borders for papers. Those are all things that contribute to their HIV status."

According to a survey done last year by the International Transport Workers Federation, Ugandans know that truck drivers are more likely to be infected with the virus than the general public.

"Women know the trailer men are dangerous," said Adongo, who often tours the brothels with health workers to raise awareness of HIV. "But they have no choice. It's because of the poverty."

In Uganda, many poor women are attracted to places like Malaba because prostitution holds out more of a hope of economic gain than any other business.

"I came here because this is the only way I could make money," said Zubeda Kyomungisa, the owner of the Sanyu Club, who maintains a plump figure to persuade customers that she is healthy. She said that when prostitutes show the disease is advancing - they become thin or develop sores - they are sent back to their home villages.

Malaba is a town of dusty dirt roads cut by streams of raw sewage and littered with garbage. The sex industry is an open secret. Even public officials acknowledge that prostitution is practiced openly - sometimes by girls as young as 14 - though technically it is illegal.

"We are worried, but there is nothing to do," said Ndelo, the head of the local government council, who has been conducting AIDS education campaigns. "The community is like a wild animal. You need to tame them. But you can only sensitize them slowly, slowly."

Most drivers who carry loads from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa into Africa's interior have to stop in Malaba. The Ugandan border post is notoriously slow, so drivers can be delayed for days - even weeks - while their documents are sorted out.

"Drivers spend may days at the border with nothing to do," said Mugeni Ouma, the head of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union in Kampala. "Here there is too much paperwork."

There are plenty of diversions to occupy the drivers.

The bars that line the streets in Malaba's commercial district are plastered with advertisements for beers like ESB - Extra Strong Brew - and Pilsner - "It's got what you want." The beer ads are mixed in with posters promoting Protector and Life Guard condoms.

At the Leisure Pub, where a few cushioned chairs surround a coffee table and a bar, pub owner Hawa Batamuliza said she refuses to have sex without a condom - unless it is with somebody she can trust.

"I've seen too many people dying from HIV, so I won't have sex without one," said Batamuliza, who came to Malaba four years earlier from western Uganda.

People are willing to live with HIV in Malaba as a cost of doing business. Trucks drive the local economy. There is no industry other than transport.

"The trucks are a good thing," said Betty Namono, a secretary for an insurance company. "The clearing agents feed on them. The insurance companies feed on them. The people who sell food depend on them. The women in the bars need them. Everybody here depends on those trucks.

"Without the trucks," she said, "people in Malaba can't live."

The trucks bring life. They also bring death.

Kuria's 50-foot rig remained in legal limbo yesterday, its cargo of 35 tons of sorghum stuck at the border. Customs officials are still unsatisfied with the paperwork.

"They want one thing," grumbled Kuria. "When you bring that, then they want a new thing."

Kuria spent much of yesterday shuttling by bicycle taxi across the border to Kenya, where he telephoned the home office of M.A. Bayusuf & Sons Ltd. in Mombasa to implore it to straighten out the paperwork.

His son, James, remained by the truck where he washed laundry in a bucket and prepared some food he bought in town, cooking up a corn porridge over a charcoal brazier. Vendors strolled among the parked trucks, selling food, clothing, knockoff watches and sunglasses.

A repairman sent by the truck company arrived to look over the truck's rear wheel, which was damaged Tuesday when the truck's brakes locked.

By the end of the day, Kuria was still awaiting word from customs officials on whether his paperwork was satisfactory. If the paperwork was in order, Kuria said, he might be able to leave by dawn today, "if God wishes."

*On to Day 6

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