Driving here in Nairobi is a challenge. It has nothing to do with getting a drivers license. No, that part is easy. Before leaving the states we took our Ohio Drivers License to AAA along with a passport photo and within minutes we each had an international driver’s permit. This document allows us to drive a private vehicle anywhere in the world valid for one year. I personally find that magical.
And, the challenge is not in overcoming the fact that in Kenya they follow British convention and drive on the opposite side of the rode. From what I have observed (I have not actually driven here), it is not an overwhelming situation. This is especially true since Terry spent time in the UK and has driven on the left side of the road.
No, the real challenge is in the roads, the vehicles, the drivers and the pedestrians.
Most of the roads here were built half a century ago. At that time the population of Nairobi was half million and today it is 3+ million. Therefore, the road structure does not support this growing population that is keen on driving. For example, there is only one road, the Uhuru Highway, which runs right through the city and is littered sporadically with roundabouts. This highway is used not only by most commuters but also by heavy trucks transiting to all parts of the country, including from the port of Mombasa to Uganda and other places in central Africa.
Then, road repair is not something that is done with any regularity. Therefore, the roads are bumpy and full of pot holes that can turn into ponds when it rains. And, random roads do have traffic lights (that may or may not work) or signs but they are largely ignored.
Now that you have a picture of the roads you must picture the vehicles that are driving on them. There are newer cars, ramshackle vehicles, motorcycles, overloaded trucks, buses and crowded minibuses, known as matatus. In combination with these vehicles are people pushing wheel barrels, people haphazardly crossing the road and people walking among the vehicles selling items such as newspapers and Tupperware to individuals sitting in cars as they wait in traffic.
Next are the drivers. A person who gets behind a wheel of a vehicle in Kenya becomes aggressive out of necessity. The general approach to driving is, if you see an opening, go for it, regardless of any lights or signs. The matatus are the guiltiest of weaving wildly from lane to lane. In addition, motorcycles are continuously squeezing between cars and trucks as they zoom by.
This whole combination creates a vision of dodgems. When situations get really bad driving is reduced to a gridlock. This becomes especially true on rainy days or Fridays when it is pay day. Our second day here we got caught in a gridlock causing what should have been a few minute, 3 kilometer (approx. 2 mile), drive to take one and half hours. Our host kindly pointed out to us that we should always keep our gas tank half full just for these times.
You might be wondering where the police are in all of this chaos. Unfortunately, the police have a reputation for being more interested in bribes from harassed motorists than untangling the jams. When they do attempt to direct traffic we have, on occasion, witnessed their efforts making the hold-ups worse.
We consider it an adventure every time we get in a car and brave the wild of the Nairobi roads. Then, we give a silent prayer of thanks when we arrive at our destination all in one piece.
We all are on different journeys in our daily lives. Some of us drive to work. Some of us need rides from point “A” to point “B”. Some of us fly. Whatever mode of transportation you use I pray you are safe. God bless you all as you continue to travel your road in your life.
Until next letter,