Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Driving in Kenya - What I’m Not Missing

The road I live on.  To their credit, the government has paved it since I took this picture.

I have just spent many long hours driving on American highways after a several year absence.  Some of the trips I have made recently include traveling from Crozet, VA to Hilton Head Island, SC.  Or from Hilton Head, SC to Hampton, VA, from Hampton, VA to New York City, NYC to Boston, Boston to Reading, PA, Reading back to Crozet, VA.  A day may involve 500, sometimes 600 miles on the road.  This has given me some time to think.  And one of my favorite topics upon which to muse are the differences between driving in America and driving in Kenya.

Here are some things I don’t miss about driving in Kenya now that I am driving in America.


  1. Speed bumps. Speed bumps in Kenya are cleverly made elevations of asphalt which not only are placed where one least expects them and are completely, totally unmarked to the extent of being almost perfectly camouflaged, they are also evidently designed to do maximum damage to the underside of one’s vehicle if one hits it at speed, which one almost always does because of the above mentioned characteristics.  Because no one in the entire country (I exaggerate only slightly) obeys any traffic law whatsoever (or more usually treats such laws as mere suggestions), the poor people charged with enforcing those laws have evidently decided that the best way to force mass compliance is to lay down monster speed bumps at irregular and maddening intervals on almost every road. I have seen speed bumps placed even on badly rutted, pot-holed, dirt roads, just in case the drivers of dodgy Toyota Corollas were tempted to burst out of a pot hole at blinding speed.  Speed bumps also appear shockingly on the major highways of the country.  This, admittedly, is to be preferred than the mass casualties that were occurring because pedestrians were refusing to use the expensive, over-engineered pedestrian crossings that required them to climb the equivalent of a three-story building before crossing the road.  Said pedestrians did their geometry and decided that a straight line (across the road) was better than a relentless zig zag up and then down.  Unfortunately their physics failed them, as approaching vehicles were often traveling at a greater speed than they appeared to be.  The solution?  Speed bumps.  Lots of them.  So now even the physics-challenged everyman can cross a superhighway with relative impunity.  And because (many) Kenyan drivers do not recognize the absolute sanctity of lanes, we now even have speed bumps placed on the side of the road and on side walks.  During our many traffic extravaganzas (see below), drivers are known to abandon both their senses and the proper lanes and create wholly new ones along the sidewalks and perilously close to that part of the road that I have always called the ditch.  This was often a brilliant maneuver on the part of the driver wanting to bypass long lines of stuck traffic.  Not so much however for the hapless pedestrian minding his/her own business on that part of the road created especially for them.  The solution?  More speed bumps, of course.  There are so many speed bumps in Kenya that no car has cruise control.  Just let that sink in.  There is no stretch of road in the whole country where one can travel without fear of suddenly having the engine of one’s car shifted unexpectedly and dramatically into the seat next to you.  This is challenging enough in the day time.  But at night things degenerate into pure roadway farce.  Perhaps 3 Kenyan speed bumps in 1000 have signs warning one of their approach.  An even more modest percentage still have their white paint warning markings visible; and these tend to wear off within the first week after application.  This means there is absolutely no way to detect a Kenyan speed bump at night until one is upon it.  I have discovered that I know an entirely alternative vocabulary reacting to this Kenyan reality.  The only way I have learned to deal with night time speed bumps is simply to memorize where they are.  This, of course, presents obvious problems when one is traveling to a new place, or if like me one’s memory isn’t what it used to be.  The end of the matter, for me at least, is this: I really don’t like speed bumps and their proliferation, they seem like some unregulated arms race between Kenya drivers and law enforcement.  But I recognize that they do save lives, even if they do damage cars and bruise heads.  I’m just glad I have a break from the exhausting job of scanning for them while driving in my home country.
  2. I don’t miss Night Driving in Kenya.  Not only are speed bumps unmarked and impossible to see at night, so is just about everything else on a Kenyan road when the lights go out.  Kenya’s exuberant system of bribe-taking ensures that a significant number of vehicles on the road should not be there.  And for some reason, a favorite way this gets manifested is that all manner of vehicles have no rear lights.  None.   This includes trucks of all size, ‘matatus’ (minibuses that have a dual identity as a necessary evil and a popular form of local transportation), ‘boda-bodas’ (two-three passenger three-wheeled vehicles that slithered out of the Indian Ocean from India like some mutant monster masquerading as a form of transportation), and ‘piki-pikis’ (motorcycles that give rides to one, two, three, and sometimes four with chickens and even goats).  I have come upon piki-pikis at night with no lights and whose drivers are wearing no helmets.  The only thing that comes to mind is that they must be depressed and are trying hard to end it all - I have no other explanation for such irresponsible madness.  And then there are the ubiquitous drunk drivers (some of them also driving vehicles with no lights…).  I am regularly driving roads at night with no street lights and having to dodge bicyclists who are dark people wearing dark clothes and riding bikes with no lights or even reflectors and who of course are not wearing helmets.  It’s terrifying to try and navigate this miasma of people mistakenly assured of their immortality.  It’s amazing that anyone actually survives being out on the road in Kenya at night.  No statistics of accidents or fatalities are produced by the relevant authorities (that I can tell).  But the loss of life and property, if the newspapers are to be credited, is much too high.  One life lost unnecessarily is much too high.  The best strategy I have found is simply to stay at home and wait till the sun comes up and one can see the speed bumps and when one doesn’t necessarily need lights.
  3. And I don’t miss the Traffic.  My adopted home village in Virginia of about 10,000 people has two lane roads, except when at the interchange for the interstate it expands to a four-lane dual carriageway (which being translated for my American audience means ‘divided highway’).  This seems about right.  Except for a couple of exceptions (some roads downtown, the A104, the Thika ‘Superhighway’- the one with the underutilized pedestrian crosswalks, and a few more recently constructed roads like the bypass), Nairobi is a city of two lane roads.  Nairobi also has somewhere between 3 and 4 million people.  There are lots of personal vehicles, plus the swarming masses of the various manner of public transportation options mentioned above.  And more trucks you can shake a stick at.  This means if anyone takes too long to turn across traffic - traffic jam!  So just imagine what happens when there is an accident!  This is usually what triggers the ‘let’s just make the sidewalk another lane of traffic’ behavior mentioned above, damn the speed bumps or, even more alarmingly, the bollards.  And then there is the rain.  Rain doesn’t happen too often in Nairobi.  But when it does, it seems to flip some under-researched panic switch in the minds of Kenyan drivers.  Said drivers revert to hive mentality and on cue immediately shut down and adopt non-rational roadway behavior.  This inevitably means that the traffic jam will congeal, and what was a smoothly flowing two lane road just five minutes ago immediately becomes five or six unmoving and snarling lanes of traffic.  Don’t ask me how they fit five or six lanes of traffic on a two lane road, but it is a wonder to behold. Unless one is in the middle of it trying to get home after a long day.  I know, every city, even American cities have their terrible traffic.  But none of these cities also have the wild card matatus, boda-bodas, and piki-pikis as well as maniacal trucks and buses to deal with. And this assumes that all the operators of the above-mentioned vehicle options are sober, which may or may not be a safe assumption.  Anyway, this sort of traffic is a daily occurrence for the people who live in Nairobi.  One does get used to it.  But I am grateful for a few months break.
  4. The last thing I am presently not missing about driving in Kenya are white trucks.  White trucks are everywhere on Kenyan roads.  They come in a range of sizes, some of them have been painted blue or green, just to confuse the uninformed observer.  Nevertheless they are all still at core white trucks.  White trucks are distinguished from other vehicles on Kenya roads in that they look like trucks but they have essentially a modified lawn mower engine.  This means that said white truck can only go about 30 mph when flooring it.  This is not such an issue in Nairobi when traffic is often not going more than 5mph because of the above-mentioned traffic issues.  But on the highways across Kenya, should one encounter a white truck on the road, which happens about every 2 minutes, its enough to drive one over the edge, so to speak.  For every two-mile long tail back creeping along at 20mph on a two lane Kenyan highway (and remember, all of them are 2 lanes), one will discover a white truck in the lead.  White trucks make traveling the pleasant Kenyan country highways and byways a nightmare.  As soon as one dispatches one white truck in the rear view mirror, there’s another coming quickly into focus.  And because almost all Kenyan roads outside the cities are two lanes, and because only a few have been equipped with climbing lanes, when it comes to coping with the proliferating white truck plague, we Kenyan drivers are on our own.  This means we are regularly dancing with death in our desperation to deal with the latest white truck apparition.  Because coming in the opposite lane, more often than not are drivers just as desperate as we are trying to get around their own white truck issue.  What this all means in practical terms is that, between all these white trucks and all those speed bumps, it takes MUCH LONGER to get anywhere by road in Kenya that it might otherwise take.  I will say this.  For all those considering taking up bungee jumping, wingsuit ‘flying’ or more ordinary parachuting out of small planes or even off-piste cliff skiing, if its simply the adrenalin rush you are after, you should just come to Kenya and rent a car for a week.