West African truck drivers spend days, weeks, and sometimes months dealing with corrupt border officials and illegal checkpoints on harrowing delivery trips that should take just a few hours.
The truck driver holds a mythic stature in American music, from the hayseed hagiographies of Slim Jacobs and Bobby Sykes to the liner notes of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking. There aren’t as many country songs about African truckers, but they are no less the virile champions of industry and gluteal fortitude as their US counterparts. On their backs rest the burden of an entire continent’s economic development and through their bloodstreams runs a hell of a lot of the continent’s HIV.
Trade in West Africa is perennially fucked, partially because the colonial powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries chopped the place up into a pizza pie of nonsensical borders, but also because most post-colonial governments in the area were so unabashedly corrupt we had to coin the term “kleptocracy” to describe them. Driving a semi full of margarine a US state’s length to its delivery point often involves passing through 3-4 separate countries and navigating the byzantine customs and immigration processes at each port of entry. Then there are the internal checkpoints manned by local police and customs agents on the lookout for smugglers, or non-smugglers who can be intimidated into coughing up a bribe. Then there’s just fuckers who’ll pull you over and straight-up rob you. Infrastructure ain’t always so hot here, either.
All of which turns shipments which would take a few hours in Europe or America into grueling, day-cum-week-cum-monthlong affairs punctuated by long and unpredictable periods of complete standstill. Which, in addition to wasting fuel and driving up the cost of goods with every unplanned stop, also fuels the sort of boredom that can only be fought by dumping money into the less savory sectors of the economy. Namely booze sales and roadside prostitution. Which is where the AIDS come in.
Intrigued by the African long-haul trucker’s dual reputation as the foundational building block of West Africa’s would-be robust economy and lotharious Johnny AIDS-leseed, we hitched a ride with a trailer full of soap to see just how hard it is to get from point-A to point-basically-A-and-a-half.