“A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it’s time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I’m wanted at the traffic-jam.
They’re saving me a seat.”
― Leonard Cohen
All my Kenyan friends drive exceptionally well. Now I know their secret.
I think the joke in the cartoon above rings true in Nairobi more than in most other places. The traffic in Nairobi is something of a perpetual bad joke. So unending is it that one must always assume, when making plans, that there will be a “jam” (the term Kenyans use to refer to a traffic jam) rather than not. A trip that would, in the normal course, take 15 minutes may take anything from an hour to three. A word to the wise, you may want to leave for that lunch date at breakfast time. If you don’t believe me then believe that sometimes drivers switch off their cars while they wait to crawl the next 20 inches. That’s how bad it can get.
Not only is the traffic hectic, once you get to where you need to go, you need to hunt down a parking bay….or more likely, just a parking space. You would think that with what seems like half the country crawling bumper to bumper on the roads, somewhere somehow, there are empty parking bays to be found….think again. The other half of the city has taken all the parking bays. You must be content to wait your turn or park very very far away. If you choose to wait, please carry hair dye for when your hair starts to gray. I accompanied a friend on a Doctor’s visit in the heart of Nairobi CBD and so long was the walk between where we parked and where the Doctor’s office was, I could have made and had twins :). Lucky for me the company was delightful, the conversation was stimulating and there was so much to see that all in all it was a pleasant and educational trek for me. I cant imagine I would feel the same if I had to trek to the office in the same manner everyday. Perhaps that is why Nairobians have such a purposeful, get-out-of-my-way-I-have-places-to-be walk. My friend loved to say “Kenyans are focused.” I imagine we would all be focused if an involuntary cardio workout was part of our daily routine lol.
Some Nairobians deal better with the traffic jam issues than others. Some of my friends took being in a traffic jam lightly, others not so much lol. On the faces of tens, maybe hundreds of drivers you will inadvertently observe simply because you have nothing better to do, you will see alternately, resignation, dejection, determination, annoyance and rarely if ever, a smile.
All this aside, what made a true and lasting impression on me was the fact that the normal rules and regulations, written and unwritten, that govern the manner in which one must use a public road internationally do NOT apply in Nairobi. I repeat, they DO NOT apply. The quote below is perfect because it perfectly describes what happens.
“Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for maneuvering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way–insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forwards, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will…”
There were times I was so amazed by what I was seeing I stared with my mouth agape. More often than not my heart was threatening to jump out of my chest in fear, if not for myself then for the 2 cars in front of me driving side by side with 2inches of space between them. Yes. I said 2 inches and I mean it literally. In addition to all this throw in the odd curve ball like sudden rain, a generous sprinkling of potholes, humps/bumps on the highway and my all time favourite, zebra crossings on the highway and you have an average drive in Nairobi. If you can drive in Nairobi, most other places will be a piece of cake.
It is not for the faint of heart or for the courteous driver. If you choose to be courteous, you will spend the week en route to that lunch date, Period. So when you drive there angle, dive, point and gamble all-or-nothing by squeezing into a space you know you wont fit into for a simple reason, everyone expects you to!