There have been so many lows during the last one year and a half, but nothing affected me psychologically more than being separated from my family, and the stigma me and my family suffered as a result of the kind of work I do.
I am a cargo truck driver, a job I have done for the last 8 years. I moved coffee from Kampala, Uganda to the coast of Mombasa in Kenya. The day the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, I was at the coffee factory loading the container. My paperwork for the trip had not even been signed off yet since I was setting off the next day.
Although cargo was given an exception, to continue moving, meaning I could still work unlike many other Ugandans, soon the cost I was to pay became vivid. For example, commuting to and from home became a challenge due to the ban on public transport as well as the 7:00pm daily curfew.
It is 50kms from where I stay to the factory where I report daily. The day after the lockdown announcement, I had no choice but to walk home. I thought hard about how I was going to get home. It was challenging. I had walked for 3 hours and I couldn’t walk any further. That day I got a lift from a private car but the fare was very high.
For a whole week, I was home seated. Like anybody used to moving, that week was very long and difficult. Being home all the time came with a lot of expenditure, yet I was no longer earning. The pandemic was an emergency that none of us had planned for. Luckily, my wife who sells matooke (edible plantain) in the market was still able to work. She sustained the family because we were able to get what to eat.
She slept in the market for two weeks because that’s the measure that the government had taken to slow the spread of coronavirus. I would walk with one of my kids, go to the market and pick foodstuffs.
Then, I got a call from work to report and resume work. Movement was still a challenge. I packed a few belongings and left home because I was not going to be able to commute daily. I borrowed a bicycle for which I paid $1.3 daily. I was to have the bicycle for the entire week until I returned home. That’s how I went to work.
Days that followed, I and my fellow cargo drivers slept in the trailers. On one hand, this was because we were moving to other countries and the government considered us as potential disease carriers. I would park the truck, draw my mosquito net and sleep in the small compartment in the truck. We (drivers) had our stoves so we cooked food for ourselves in the yards where we parked at night.
In Uganda, nobody was more victimized when it came to COVID-19 than truck drivers. The public perception was that every cargo truck driver had coronavirus and were moving it around. Everyone resented us, we were chased when we tried to buy things from shops. At some point, the money we had was of no use to us because shop owners resented us. Those that were kind enough, sold to us things at hiked prices.
My wife was a victim of this stigma too. Her friends began to isolate her out of fear that she could be infected because of me. I kept telling her to persevere because I had no choice since my job was our livelihood.
There was a factory that treated us (drivers) like wild animals in a zoo. Whenever they served us food, they would hand the plates to us using an improvised metallic object which had a very long handle. They didn’t want to get close to us.
In Kenya, the conditions weren’t as harsh. And the curfew was a bit relaxed.
I had no way out because that was my job and that’s the only way I would fend for my family.
The thing that got to me the most was the idea that I had a home but I wasn’t able to sleep there. The nights were uncomfortable. Though I had borrowed the bicycle, I couldn’t ride home every day because I would already be fatigued from driving the long route. However, the fact that it was a group of us in the same predicament kept me going.
I managed to surmount this anxiety through the power of association. Myself and colleague drivers became our own therapy. You always knew you were not in it alone. We were a group of people facing the same problem. That comforted us. Sometimes, you would be deep in thoughts and a colleague tells you ‘Man, don’t worry. This is only temporary. Everything will be fine’. And through that we managed to get through the day.
This pandemic has been a learning period. The take away for me is - you can’t depend on one source of income. One must save some money for a rainy day. For that reason, my plan is to support my wife as much as I can, so she can sustain our family. That way, even when I’m away, like I was for months, she can take care of our family. I have stayed safe during this pandemic by wearing the face mask at all times and using my sanitizer always. I also drank lemon, ginger and garlic concoctions several times.