“Travelling down the roads of learning, my experience, working with truckers”

When I started my work with truckers on HIV, I had several prejudices about them as any other person in the community . I thought they were closed people, I was told that they were spreading HIV because they are mobile and frequent sex workers. But this evolved over time.

As I started working with them I realized that I had no direct link with them, as traders, hotel staff, police men, sex workers, etc. All I understood was that I had to create an opportunity to interact with them in a natural way.

I started to go to place where truckers halt and hitchhike from one point to another within a particular district, engaging in conversations with them. Travelling in the truck, I would ask questions like “How long you have been driving today, Where are you going? “ How long you have been on this duty?”, “Where are you from?” This would give me an opportunity to know about him and will open up an opportunity for them to ask about me as well. This enables me to explain more about my work on HIV. I would always tell them my personal story of how I got involved in this work.
I would then ask “Do you know about HIV? ” What I learned from this experience is that I had to connect informally and at a personal level, understanding their situation.

Later on, I interacted with the people in the halt points where the truckers halt for food and other services, sensitizing them to the need to work with truckers. They usually respond positively because their existence (business and occupation) depends on them. Later I used to set up a booth to interact with truckers. I never put my booth before the check-points, because truckers are concerned about policemen, the road transport authorities, who impose heavy taxes and penalties on them. Dealing with bribing also becomes a issue for them in this place. Where you place yourself is important and is largely dependent on the direction of the truck flow.

I usually sensitized everyone at the truckers stop: the traders, the vendors, the sex workers, the community… They will be your link to the truckers and will help you in your interactions. Once I could not come to my work place because I had to accompany a colleague admitted in the hospital. The visitors who met me at the office and also came with me to the hospital happened to pass through the place I worked. They purposely enquired about me to the people there. The person who worked in the puncture shop said that I will come and it is time. The visitors knowing that I will not come stayed there to see what was happening. To their amusement the person in the puncture shop set up the booth and started educating the truckers as people had started visiting the booth. When he got some work to fix the tires the person who owned the Pan shop came and continued the sessions. The visitors came back impressed and asked me what did you do in that place to establish an environment like this.

Yes, it was a lesson for me too. Something I did very naturally, that is making these two youngsters to understand about the importance of knowing and sharing facts about HIV had been so helpful in educating others. And also in sustaining my role in that place in the long run. Seven years later I met someone who was working in that place among truckers who belonged to another NGO (our project got over) I enquired about the place. He said there is not work for NGOs because everyone in that place is aware of HIV and someone had worked in that place earlier and their work had made a lot of impact. We just visit that place just as it is a very strategic location just to sustain that effect and motivate people there. Later he was thrilled to know that I was the person who had worked there earlier. Till know that place stays as my favourite place of work.

Usually truckers are busy when they are at the check posts. Sometimes even in the place they stop for food and to rest they may be pre occupied. I used to keep a small flash card that said “Konjam neeram pesalama” which means ” can we talk for some time (few minutes)”. With this I will be sitting alone in my booth. Many truckers will see this and some will surely come and ask me what it is about. I would ask them to answer that question first and then. The persons who say “yes” I will request them to sit and ask them and others there whether they are interested to speak so some more will also join because already they have seen somebody sitting / volunteering. Then I will use the cards I had prepared earlier that contains statements that contains “Isolating persons with HIV from the society can completely prevent spread of HIV to others ”, “A person with HIV is sick and cannot work as any other person”, “If I come to know that my friend has HIV I will cut my relationships with him” and so on. Each person gets a card and responds to it.
There will be agreement, disagreement and argument on these statements. Many truckers will ask how can I cut the relationship with my friend, Even if my co driver is sick during the trip I will take lead and together will complete our trip I will not let him go half way through so, even if my co driver has HIV and is unable to work I don’t mind taking him with me on a trip. This process was helpful to me to learn how important human relationships were to them and also I was amazed at their responses in caring for their friends “ love in action” . This also gave me an opportunity to clarify some myths among the truckers with the help of other truckers who were well informed and caring, by explaining that “all HIV positive persons are not sick all the time and can lead a normal life”, and also address misconceptions such as “isolating one person identified with HIV does not actually help in stopping the spread of infection to others” because there might be many who do not know their status and can be still transmitting the virus to others. Though there were only 2 to 3 person coming forward for the discussion there would be many who would be witnessing this process. This becomes a learning for all. After every session I would thank those who had participated and request everyone who witnessed this process to spread the message around.
I have learnt that the truckers care for their fellow members. They have a great network to spread messages among themselves. “Teasers” help in getting the truckers attention and to make them discuss issues openly on a voluntary basis.

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Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on July 15, 2009 at 6:27pm
Dear Prabakar,

Thoroughly enjoyed your story. Thanks. India Competence is proud of you!

What I found extremely useful was the way you have weaved in the lessons learnt. Also your sharing showcases the significance of building a bond in community conversation especially if one has no entry point and are new to the community. You used innovative means like flash cards to seek attention of the truckers and ignite discussion. Super!

The Humsafar Trust, is a CBO on sexual health and MSM/TG in India. In its 'Shaan Project' with truckers the CBO found male sex workers at all six major truck stops in Mumbai and on its municipal outskirts. The truckers shared that nearly 30 percent of sex work is in MSM sector and areas which are not well lit and unsafe for woman in sex work , male sex work is considerably larger and around 50 percent of total sex interactions.

Population Council study suggests that a large number of truckers engage in MSM sexual activity in India. I will quote from the study "Truckers have fewer contacts with female sex workers. Their involvement in MSM activities has increased. These changes appear to be a result of interventions which have placed a heavy emphasis on female sex workers as the primary sources for the spread of HIV infection. Furthermore, there has been an increase in condom use among female sex workers and a perceived reduction in pleasure through heterosexual contact when condoms are used."

As your organisation Siaap works with Sex workers, what was your experience in this context?

Look forward to more stories,

Warm regards,

Rituu
Comment by M.L. Prabakar on July 15, 2009 at 3:28pm
Dear Gaston and Laurence,

Thanks for all the encouragement. I am so glad that your are sharing my story with many people and also in their local language. Gaston you had been an inspiration for me to start writing something on my work with truckers. Laurence had taken lot of efforts to make me put this in a shape.
I hope your meeting went on very well. Laurence thanks a lot for sharing my mail. I am so touched by the was you had presented it.

With warm regards,

Prabakar
Comment by Laurence Gilliot on July 14, 2009 at 11:09pm
Hi Prabu,

Today we gave a copy of your story in english and french to all participants in Kigali. People were very happy to read your experience.

Friends, here is what Prabakar send to me by email:

"Give my regards to the truckers there. Please tell them that I learned many things in life from truckers like them in India. For example: when I close my eyes and sleep in the night I believed that everyone in and around my place are sleeping. Only after working with truckers I realized that there is a whole night life around me and there are so many noble and committed people who sacrifice their night sleep in order to make my day a great blessing for me. The truckers are the most significant of them all.

My strong impression about the truckers is that they are the most friendly batch of people I have ever met in my life.

Have a great meeting."
Comment by Dr. E. Mohamed Rafique on July 14, 2009 at 8:46am
Hi Prabakar,

Your experiences brings to my mind, the ones I have had with Truckers when we set up the National program in its second avatar, namely the BMGF funded one.

As part of the "immersion" experience, we were made to travel one full trip in a Lorry (Truck), so that we learnt their complete lifestyle, by living with them. This gave us a 'taste' of the vulnerabilities they were exposed to. Of course the rapport built this way with the trucking team was a very close one.

What I learnt from them I will try to put in the truckers own words. "Look at us, we spend our lives on the road. We drive on the road, The police, the officials in the check posts, the lorry owner, the lorry agent, the booking clerks, all order us, bully us and scold us. We are at the receiving end. Only the sex worker, listens to us, and does not bully us. The normal public look down on us as we are people living on the road. But the sex worker or trans-gender treats us as if we are royalty."

Some of them say: "Any way we face so much risk, so what is one more (HIV)."

Another view point that I came across some of the truck drivers was: "We spend our lives on the road. We drive on the road. We eat in the road side Dhabbas, sleep in a small hammock strung under the truck or in the cabin if it is cold. We cook on the road, if there is no Dhabba in sight or if we want to have our own meal. We urinate, and defecate, in the open fields or public toilets, and bathe near public taps or in publilc wash rooms. Thus, what the majority does in private, we truckers do in public. Similarly, also with sex. You may do it in private, but we have no qualms about being public, about it, like picking up the sex worker and having sex with her on the berth in the cabin, while the cleaner boy is at the wheel, or waiting under the vehicle, or on the roof for his turn."

I could not but appreciate their frank, truthful and open manner. Also, most of them conclude that risk taking was innate and inbuilt so much that they could easily take on more! Accordingly our "one-to-one" and "one-to-many" sessions must be designed as you have shown so well in your letter.

Hope these experiences complement yours,

Rafique
Comment by Gaston on July 13, 2009 at 11:21pm
Thanks Prabakar for this truly amazing, informative and human sharing. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg of your experience with truckers in India.

I am writing this in Kigali the evening before a 4-day knowledge fair with transport workers and PLHIV from 6 African countries. Your story will be told tomorrow morning and I'll encourage the people here to share their great experiences with you (via Ning). This is connecting local responses beyond continents.

Regards

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