Wednesday April 12, 2023
BY JAMILA OSMAN
Scenes from the changing face of an industry.
The trucking life can be lonely, but for Somali immigrants it echoes with a traditional nomadic lifestyle. ALL ILLUSTRATIONS: WASIMA FARAH FOR ATLAS OBSCURA
It’s late evening in a coffee shop in Edmonton, Alberta, and Abdi Ali is showing off the vibrant community that lives in his phone. Ali is 28 and originally from Somalia, though he lives in Ontario now. He owns and operates an 18-wheeler, and has been criss-crossing North America since 2020. On his phone, he plays voice notes from a group chat consisting of more than 40 other Somali truckers from provinces all around the country. Most of them have never met in real life.
“Asalamu Calaykum akhiyaarta sharafta leh, aad baan idin salaamaya,” says a man with a deep baritone voice: “Peace be upon you, gentlemen, warm greetings.” In the 56-second voice note, he warns the group of a speed checkpoint on Sandy Lake where several truckers have been pulled over. In another voice note, an older gentleman narrates his drive: “It is 8:13 p.m. The wind is high enough to tip over vehicles. I’m driving 76 kilometers per hour. There are felled trees in the road. Whoever is driving in this direction should be careful. May God deliver you safely.”
Ali and the other men in the group chat represent one expression of the changing face of the trucking industry in North America. In what has traditionally been a predominantly white field, today Somalis are just one of several immigrant groups rising to fill the ranks of a profession that is experiencing intense labor shortages, which are only expected to get worse in coming years. Despite declining wages due to industry deregulation, Ali has saved enough money to build his wife and children a home in Mogadishu. The transportation industry runs on a seasonal calendar, subject to supply and demand. After the holiday season, when freight volume is low, Ali escapes Canada’s relentless winter to spend a few months with his family, before eventually returning to life on the road.
In many ways, according to these drivers, trucking mimics the nomadic lifestyle that much of the Somali population used to live. Instead of herding livestock, Somali truckers are now responsible for hauling retail goods, raw materials, meat and produce from one place to the next.
Somalis are just one immigrant group that reflects the change in the trucking industry in North America.
Abdirahman Sheikh, a 29-year-old trucker from Rochester, Minnesota, team drives with his brother, Mohamed. The long hours fly by, he says, because they have each other for company. “It doesn’t even feel like we’re working. We’re just chopping it up and hanging out.” Sheikh’s career as a trucker has always had Somali connections. His first two jobs were with Somali-owned companies. Once, in a small restaurant in a state that he can no longer recall, the brothers ran into two older Somali drivers who greeted them warmly and paid for their lunch. “It’s that Somali hospitality,” he says. He describes them as uncles who treat him and his brother like family when they encounter each other on the road: “We are never strangers.” Because so many of his friends are truckers, they can coordinate to see each other when they’re dropping off loads in nearby cities. Recently, he called a friend to catch up and was pleasantly surprised to find that they would both be dropping off in Columbus, Ohio. They made plans to see each other.
Trucking is often perceived as a lonely profession, but there’s something different in the Somali approach to it, these social networks with vast geographic breadth. Drivers without the luxury of a brother in the cab rely on social media apps such as Clubhouse, Snapchat, and TikTok to connect and converse with others who understand this peculiar immigrant lifestyle—limited food options on the road, trying to cook a meal that tastes like home on an electric skillet, the trepidation of pulling into certain truck stops in the South, the excessive wait times at some warehouses and ports. These internet spaces and truck cabs are substitutes for the living rooms and dimly lit coffee shops where these relationships would normally be forged.
For much of their history, the majority of the Somali people have been semi-nomadic pastoralists, herding camels and other livestock through deserts and woodlands, highlands and plateaus. Pastoralists operate on a calendar of plenty and want, wet and dry seasons. Colloquially known as roob raac, or “rain followers,” pastoralists once made up almost 60 percent of the Somali population, though this traditional way of life has been decimated by the compounding impacts of climate change, war, political instability, and urbanization.
“We are never strangers.”
The livelihood necessitates a spirit of communalism that is a central tenet of Somali culture; a nomadic lifestyle must be built on expansive notions of kinship that defy geographic limitations and colonial borders. These networks only grew more fluid after the collapse of the federal government in 1991, which resulted in a refugee crisis that sent many Somalis abroad. Currently an estimated two million live in the diaspora, propelled by the motives that have always driven migration within and beyond the country: a desire for safety and security, for a better life and a brighter future.
Nephew Hamza, a trucker from Seattle, Washington, and founder of a now-defunct Facebook group for the Somali diaspora, which many truckers and their families used, describes a time 12 years ago when his truck broke down in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a weekend, and repairs would not be completed until Tuesday. At the local Walmart, he ran into a Somali couple who invited him to their home, where they hosted him for the entire weekend. They cooked him homemade meals and gave him full use of their car. “If you’re Somali, you’re family,” he says. “That’s the beauty of our culture. Being Somali is the best kind of passport.”
Hamza has been a trucker since 1997, when, depressed after a stint of menial and unfulfilling jobs, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, who owned a trucking company back in Somalia. “It was in my DNA,” he says. When he first started driving in the 1990s, it was “a white man’s job,” he says. Some truckers regularly spewed racial slurs and epithets over their CB radios. But he stuck it out and is now witness to an evolution of the trucking industry, and both the anxiety and excitement of a new cohort of younger, immigrant drivers and some anger and resentment from the old guard.
Abdirahman describes the dirty looks he and his brother sometimes get when they walk around truck stops or fuel stations in sweatpants, while many old-school truckers prefer button-downs tucked into their slacks. These contrasts have only been amplified by the pandemic and disruptions to the global supply chain. Despite the uncertainty of the industry’s future, Hamza doesn’t envision that the number of Somali men entering the profession will slow.
Much of the community that Somali truckers in North America have formed is mediated through their phones, on a variety of platforms.
In Somalia, pastoralists rely on their deep knowledge of and kinship with the land for survival. This knowledge is an accumulation of personal experience and oral history. Thousands of miles away, Abdirahman has developed his own embodied knowledge of a much vaster territory—the United States. He estimates that he spends roughly 75 percent of the year on the road. He no longer gets lost or relies on GPS for navigation. “I know what highways lead where,” he says. “If I take Interstate 70 I can go from Philadelphia to Grand Junction. I-90 can take me from Minneapolis to Seattle.” There is little of the United States he hasn’t seen. According to him, the mountains of the Pacific Northwest make for treacherous drives. Colorado is similarly both beautiful and brutal.
“This is a breathtaking country,” Hamza says, echoing this sentiment, but the differences that seem so monumental, the changes in terrain from one state to the next, the shifts in temperature and climate, even the political differences between red and blue states, barely register from the vantage point of the truck cab. “After a while you realize all of America is the same,” he says.
A traditional nomadic home is designed to be made and unmade at a moment’s notice, loaded on the backs of camels, the sum total of a life hauled from one location to the next. Camels are known as the ships of the desert, and trucks play a role that is similar but very different, as the ships of the American economy. For long-haul truckers who carry the whims of the average American consumer, a typical load can consist of Fiji water to a million dollars’ worth of Xboxes.
Said Salah Ahmed, a Somali poet, filmmaker, and cultural archivist describes the bells that herders attach to the neck of their camels to keep track of them. Ranging in pitch, the bells are a kind of GPS tracker that allows pastoralists to identify their camels at a large distance. After the government collapse and ensuing civil war, everything was lost—except the camel bells, or at least the spirit of them and how they connect people and their livelihoods across a vast landscape. For Somali truckers, the echoes of those bygone bells can be heard in the Somali music blaring from their truck speakers, in the boisterous Clubhouse rooms where they don’t take turns speaking, but rather speak over one another. They are grateful to find each other, and some semblance of home, in the brief moments of brotherhood they experience as they meet and part on unfamiliar roads.
When home can no longer be defined by brick-and-mortar, by the borders of a state, by the markings of a country, it is found and forged in unlikely places—suburban big box stores, interstate rest stops, crowded loading zones. In an interview with the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Ahmed said, “I am holding the camel bell in the diaspora, like the herder of the past, to enact its original function. The Somalis are dispersed all over the world. I ring the bell to bring them back.”