When the blacktop two lane “highway” heading towards the Ol Pejeta Conservancy tuned to dirt, huge piles of rubble appeared on the right side, like a wall. The roadway itself was smooth and passable, however, until we were stopped in our tracks by a man, sitting on a horizontal concrete block, hunched over a small hole about 6 inches round. He laid small boulders across our path so we could not run him over. Our bus driver put the bus in gear and we watched. We watched as the solo road worker selected a few stones, took a hammer to crush them fine, and then ladled the mixture into the hole with a spoon. A spoon, really? After many minutes of watching, our bus driver had enough and told him to move the boulders and let us pass.
A little further down the road, the road morphed into what looked like a narrow field ready for cultivating and plowing instead of a highway. Bulldozers pushed the red rich soil that was elevated above the surrounding Kenya countryside by a few feet. Our driver missed the detour sign and was not interested in turning around. He couldn’t if he wanted to because three more buses had pulled up to his sides as if they were gawking observers looking at a spectacle.
This behavior is called “overlapping” and is rampant here in Nairobi. There was arguing going on and before long, our bus driver won and we plowed through the loose soil like a tractor instead of a bus. Bus drivers seem to hold tremendous power in this African country.
We had been in Nairobi nearly a week at the Africa Travel Association’s Annual Congress, http://www.africatravelassociation.org
co-sponsored with the Kenya Tourism Board
before our excursion out to this conservancy and so by this point, we had experienced some bizarre and unmanageable driving conditions. The worst, we learned, was during the rainy season.
When it rains, you can expect the ride to take hours when normally it would take minutes. The poorly drained roads flood with deep red water, thick with soil. Nairobi-ans drive old small vehicles that are purchased from Japan, which quickly break down and drown in deep water and turn into road blocks. (These vehicles have to be at least five years old before they are brought in and only the very wealthy can afford to buy cars new). There are also thousands of small public buses called matatus on the road competing for space, which are the main people movers in Nairobi.
It rained hard one evening when we were enroute to a dinner gala at the conference center in Nairobi. After we loaded our bus, we sat around the corner from our hotel for an hour. Four buses abreast filled the street, coming at us like immobile hungry sharks, anxious to devour us to get through. At our sides, vehicles from behind had flanked our sides. No vehicle could come towards us and none could go forward. It was a stand off, and there we sat for hours. When we moved inches, all vehicles moved inches at the same time, never allowing any distance to open up. This isn’t gridlock like at back home where everyone stays in their lane and waits, as patiently as they can. Aggressive driving is fined in America. It is a way of life here in Nairobi.
We heard other horror stories throughout the conference week. Colleagues were waiting for a transport to take them to that same dinner gala our first evening but their transport never showed up. They waited in front of our hotel for 1 ½ hours, figuring they were being blown off by the driver and went and found their own dinner. This was the first night of our conference in Nairobi and no one was privy to how bad the driving is and how long the wait can get. I happened to chat with that same bus driver days later and he informed me that they were certainly NOT forgotten. It had taken him 5 hours to drive the 1 ½ kilometers and arrived at the hotel entrance and lo and behold, found no waiting passengers.
Woman as a rule, don’t drive in Nairobi and you really can tell if there is a lone, usually terrified woman behind the wheel in the car ahead. The vehicle moves timidly. It allows vehicle after vehicle to cut in front of it. It gets run over. Woman naturally are caregivers, peacemakers, want everyone to get along. That personality doesn’t fly here in on the roadways of Nairobi. I am a fairly assertive driver at home. I overtake often and I drive over the speed limit most of the time but I am still considerate. I would need to step up my game here in order to stay alive. The alternative, always being a passenger, would also not fly with most American women I know.
While we drove around the conservancy on a game drive, Fred Muari of Africa Safaritours
told me more stories of traffic gridlocked in his fair city. One time a man hired a taxi to take him the 8 kilometers home. He got stuck in traffic and took 12 hours to get home. He went into his home, grabbed a sandwich and asked the taxi driver to wait and turn around and take him back to work, never getting a sleep in. Fred tells me that when people enroute to the airport get caught in traffic, they often get out and walk and just abandon their luggage before they’d miss a flight.
On our way home from the conservancy, traffic suddenly stopped again. Vehicles came up from our rear on either sides of us. Then they came up on the other sides of those vehicles until there was a wall of vehicles five wide. The farthest ones out were in the bush. The line across might have grown to be 6, 7,8 across perhaps if it were not for the trees that began to grow the further out you went.
I sat in disbelief. No one beeped a horn in traffic jams like this, nor yells. Everyone moves quietly and aggressively. Do they stay off their horns because they are polite? That is hard to believe, for this behavior appears to be every man out for himself with no regard for their fellow drivers. I found the Nairobians to be patient, kind people in general so what occurs in them when they get behind the wheel?
First off, there are educated drivers and there are professional drivers on the road. The number of matatus in Nairobi alone number in the thousands, moving tens of thousands of people a day. This is a phenomenal number and because many of these are smaller vans, the roads are even more crowded with these aggressively driven vehicles.
The matatu drivers get paid by the trip. Even taxi drivers do not transport with a running tab of a meter. The incident where the passenger spent 12 hours one way in the vehicle only to turn around again, was paid through a negotiation. The driver’s time is taken into account along with the passenger’s wallet over this misfortune and lack of control. An agreement is made between the two.
There are also more vehicles on the road every year and those drivers are new to driving and do not possess the skill to be good drivers. A whole generators of poor drivers is evolving.
A police must be called in when one of these spectacular grid lock road blocks occurs to supervise. The officer gets into the thick of it and directs individual vehicles where to go. But these frequent and long lasting jams happen on a near daily basis and the police are at a loss of how to mitigate them. I myself was not frustrated but watched in a state of fascination and disbelief, but it wouldn’t take too many of these jams before I would be feeling like I was about to explode. I asked Fred what it feels like to live this way? “Doesn’t it make you crazy?”
“No,” Fred says. “You play music. You look at the headlights in front of you You chat and connect to the people in your vehicle. You just enjoy the sit.”
“Just enjoy the sit.” Wow. We Americans move so quickly, like to move quickly and expect to. When something stops us, we grow impatient almost immediately unless it is an accident. Then we accept our misfortune and stay parked in our lane and feel fortunate not to have been in a wreck and maybe dead. If someone does drive in the break down lane because they want to get off at an exit and avoid the back up, they are liable for a fine. But in a country like Kenya where corruption is rampant and they have much bigger problems than writing fines and collecting them, it may feel useless. Besides, you can always pay the police or anyone off, so why bother. Perhaps driving in this manner is an opportunity to be take control of one aspect of their lives. Africa struggles with an overall feeling of hopelessness, where so much is beyond their ability.
I learned years ago as a young mother, that it was never the child who was bad, they just exhibited poor behavior. Same for these Nairobians. They are good people. Many of them just drive like jerks.To accept such horrendous traffic conditions and behavior is beyond my American comprehension. I would want change and want it quickly and have order enforced. But that may be the difference between a citizen of a country who feels as if they have a voice and one who feels as if they are mute.
On my last evening in Nairobi, Fred and I planned to hop a matatu for a few kilometers so I could experience one. At the bus stop, he checked out each matatu that pulled up and peered into the window, for good matatu rides are “all about the vibe.” These mass transit, privately owned buses are painted on the outside with graffiti art and paintings. Some are gorgeous, some are gaudy. They share quotes depicting the driver’s private philosophy. After selecting an appropriate one, with loud African music and a deep percussion beat, we quickly climbed the few steps, for it was already moving away. We grabbed hold of a chrome bar overhead. Black faces, the color of night, filled the seats, standing room only. Posters of Malcome X and Bob Marley decorated the walls of the bus. The other passengers knew I was a tourist, of course, and so they smiled and said, Jambo!” and just watched me, fascinated by my behavior.
Fred and I hung near the door, watching the driver’s assistant swing out into the street as he held on with one arm, signaling where the bus was headed to the folks standing on the street. He tapped loudly on the side of the bus, indicating for the driver to continue. There was an overall feeling of fun on the matatu. I felt like busting out some dance moves but controlled myself. The matatu driver rocked and rolled through the streets, overtaking, overlapping, moving his people through Nairobi as fast as he could. From the inside of this lively bus, I didn’t mind his driving at all.