Monday, August 17, 2015

The Further Adventures of Kenya Driver

Driving on roads in Kenya is sort of like visiting an amusement park in the US before OSHA started suggesting that safety might need to be a significant factor in one’s overall experience.  I remember watching a driver’s ed film when I was 14 on ‘Potential Hazards’ one might encounter when one is behind the wheel.  The film depicted a calm drive (could not have been at more than 15 mph) down a leafy suburban street.  We were supposed to identify the potential hazards, and then be on the alert in case it becomes an ‘actual hazard’.   The car pulling out of the driveway in front of us.  The ball bouncing into the road followed by the boy.  The dog careening full speed from between two parked cars.  The car stopped in the middle of the road with no flashing lights.  You get the picture.

Such fun!

Perfectly safe.

This past Sunday I made the drive from Kitale to Nairobi, a 400 km journey.  I can now definitively say that everything about this trip falls into the useful category of potential hazards, with not a few of them veering (sometimes literally) into the classification of actual hazard, not to mention being quite the excitement to experience.

Ignore Machakos for the time being.

Kitale is a growing regional center of about 120,000 souls.  And I have determined that there is at least a one-to-one correspondence between the number of ‘pikipikis’ (small motorbikes) and number of otherwise innocent civilians that make up greater Kitale.  People use pikipikis all the time, because they are small, don’t have to stay in traffic lanes (as required by the rest of us mortals), can weave in and out of traffic and generally drop their passengers off at their destination much more quickly (and cheaply) than if one had driven there (which is not an option for most) or taken a matatu (a barely tolerated necessary evil) or walked (which many do anyway).  But it is the very rare pikipiki operator who one ever sees wearing a helmet.  Sometimes they have a helmet, but it is dangling from the handlebar (I was told it was for the passengers, or to have on hand for the ‘police checks’, aka opportunities for revenue collection).  Even though Kenya has one of the worst highway traffic fatality rates in the world, and even though motorcycles are already the most dangerous way to get around, and though there are thousands of pikipikis swarming down the streets of Kenya’s towns and cities, Kenya drivers are for some reason perpetually shocked to find that there was an unnoticed pikipiki precisely where they intended their car to go. One begins to see that whatever the short-term gains may be for owning one or riding one, the long-term numbers are not necessarily in one’s favor.

Kitale pikipiki drivers fueling up to better serve you.

So I left Kitale having to negotiate a dusty two lane road choked with traffic moving in every conceivable direction, and sometimes even forward.  Plus the excitement of having pikipikis coming at me from said multiple directions.  We were all going the speed of a human-propelled push cart.  The reason I know is that because twenty cars ahead of me (with pikipikis rushing by within arms-length on both sides of my car) was the very man and his push-cart, oblivious to the fact that he was doing a fantastic job of controlling the traffic flow on Kitale’s busiest street.  Of course the slowness of our advance invited others to take advantage of the opportunity to get to the other side, including smartly-dressed businessmen, traditionally-built market ladies, worker boys carrying sacks of cement or potatoes, and even chickens (I was too distracted to ask why…).

We eventually broke free of Kitale.  The reason I could tell is that the number of speed bumps in the road dwindled, allowing one to drive more than 50 meters before one had to ascend and then descend some construction company’s idea of speed control.  I would love to say that at this point, we could sail on to the next community (and their own clutch of speed bumps) at speed, but at this point the road had descended into a state of random disrepair.  Which means that at any point the road had disintegrated into a series of potholes.  In the community from which I just came in the US, a ‘pot hole’ consisted of the top layer of asphalt cracking and then turning into a slight bump as one drives from one layer to the next.  At which point a concerned citizen would call and the pothole repair crew would come and apply their patch.

In Kenya, if only. Many potholes are actually entrances into the abyss, or wormholes into alternative universes.  One doesn’t drive over Kenyan potholes, one drives into them, and then back out.  Also, most of the time, Kenyan potholes come unannounced, like an unwelcome guest at dinner time.  On some stretches of road, it’s so bad that you can watch five or six cars ahead of you weave all over the road like drunken drivers as they avoid car-destroying engagements with what appears to be a crater-pocked lunar landscape otherwise passing itself off as ‘the road’.  Happily, I didn’t encounter a road like that on this trip, but the potholes were not few and appeared without warning.

I did pass by several construction sites.  The reason I knew was because there were men working with big machines and the road was a total mess, or a small solitary sign announced ‘Diversion’ and pointed that way.  Back in the US, road construction projects are announced differently.  For at least a mile before anything happens, orange and white cones or barrels sprout like a plague of mushrooms at predetermined distances apart, being our first clue that we might be asked to do something unexpected up ahead.  Then comes flashing signs, more orange and white cones, reduced speed signs, flashing arrows, and then yet even more traffic cones to move us out of this lane into that lane.  And then even more signs warning us that traffic fines are doubled in a work zone.  And then one comes to the actual work site and discovers a crew repainting lines on the road, or cutting the grass off the road.  I appreciate the emphasis on safety in our country.  But just imagine a place where no orange and white cones exist, where no flashing lights get our attention, where no warning whatsoever may be forthcoming as you come to a place where the old bridge is out and the new bridge is still under construction.  Welcome to Kenya!  Even on the major four lane highway through the outskirts of the capital, should a road crew cut out the area around a very deep pothole making it even deeper and bigger (and then for reasons unexplained just leave the resulting yawing cavern unfilled and unmarked for days, even weeks on end!), there is no flock of orange cones, no sign warning of impending apocalypse, nothing on the road at all to suggest that there is a very deep hole right in front of you as you and everyone else blast by at 100 kph.  A friend of mine hit such a hole in such a place at just such a speed, resulting in the total obliteration of his tire.  He was lucky that he and his family were not killed.

We eventually got to the city of Eldoret.  Eldoret is the fastest growing city in East Africa, and has about 230,000 folks in it.  Unfortunately for us and for everybody else, it still has the same road infrastructure as it had in the 1980s.  That means the main and only road running through Eldoret is functionally two lanes.  That means it only takes one person wanting to make a turn across traffic to cause a first class traffic jam.  For some reason, there were scores of people wanting to make this maneuver when we were there.  So it becomes a highstakes scrum between huge lorries, jaded car drivers, heartless or brainless matatu drivers (or both), and pikipiki drivers, creating a rather miasmic effect.  Heaven forbid one has a pre-existing blood pressure issue on a trip like this.

Eldoret.  What more need I say?

Somehow we endured Eldoret.  We were making relatively good progress about 150 kph into our trip when we heard the unfortunate and alarming sound of something metal scraping underneath and behind us.  We pulled off the road and discovered that our tail pipe was hanging by a shred of metal.  After determining that the muffler was otherwise ok and nothing else was about to fall off or apart, we pulled the tailpipe off and tossed it into the back to deal with later, and continued our journey.  Kenya roads are not just hard on drivers, they are hard on cars, too.

From previous trips I was hoping to encounter again the most interesting road phenomena that I have ever come across as one skirts the western edge of the escapement of the Great Rift Valley.  There is a place along the road where exists, evidently, a geological hot spot, produced by magma coming relatively close to the earth’s surface.  As a result, the temperature of the road occasionally gets so hot that the pavement actually melts, creating ripples in the road that are quite exiting to drive across.  I looked in vain for this section, but we never came across it.

However, we did make are way down the escarpment and into the valley floor as we travelled to Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya (350,000 or so people), and the place where I spent my first summer in Kenya as a short term missionary back in 1980.  Needless to say, Nakuru has changed, not least in the number of pikipikis.  We stopped at a shopping mall (!) and ordered a hamburger and fries (!!) for a late lunch and then carried on our way across the Rift Valley, past Lake Elementaita, Lake Naivasha, through a wildlife conservancy where zebra and gazelle were grazing by the road.  It was lovely.  Except for the lorries (Kenyan/British for trucks).  I have yet to figure out why, but for some reason lorries in Kenya seem to be predestined by God to travel at a speed of absolutely no higher than 45 kph and usually less when going up hill, which seems most of the time.  And for some reason, the smaller the lorry, the slower it must go.  This is an interesting fact when studied in isolation.  But when one is driving the only road between Nakuru and Nairobi, and when the only road is two lanes, and when only occasionally will there be provided a climbing lane (extra lane when climbing up hills), this part of the trip descends into nightmare territory.  Behind every lorry there may be twenty or more cars all wishing they were going at least twice as fast.  But there are an equal number of vehicles coming from the other direction and in the same predicament.  It’s at this point that I can personally attest that otherwise sane people lose their minds.  There is no etiquette that says the person behind the lorry passes next.  It’s everybody out for himself or herself.  In order to get around said truck, the moment there’s a break in the oncoming traffic every car behind it leaps into the passing lane and then attempts to get around.  All well and good in hypothetical situations.  But in this case, oncoming traffic nearly obliterated a number of cars that took a chance when perhaps the driver might have been better advised to wait till next time.  But no.  This cycle repeated itself upwards of fifty times.  By then, my body had quit responding to adrenaline.

Slow lorry lumbering on left.  Petrol lorry passing in middle.  Big bus passing on right off road.
Just think about it.

On the way to drop my friend off, I encountered my final potential hazard.  Many Kenyan drivers are just like me, we are reasonable people who have good driving skills and we want only to arrive safely at our destination.  And then there are the few who are in danger of being on the wrong side of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest.  I encountered one such man who was driving so aggressively that I was forced by his aggressive driving to hit a canyon of a pothole stretched across my side of the role.  He went on to be a menace to several other drivers.  Fortunately my tank of a car emerged in one piece (having already removed my tailpipe!).  But it just reminded me that one can be almost home and then an unexpected potential hazard emerge to become an actual hazard in the snap of a finger.

Must be from the UK.  Everything would have been squashed by now if this were here.

Every time I get into a car, I pray, ‘Lord, protect them from me, and protect me from them.’  Who needs Hollywood action films, video games or amusement parks (OSHA protected or not), when one can sit in the driver’s seat in Kenya.  Or hop on the back of a passing pikipiki.

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