Monday, December 09, 2019

The myth of frictionlessness

On Friday, my colleagues and I departed Kisumu City for Nairobi at around noon. It is a beautiful city and recent infrastructural developments have made it a pleasant place to visit. We got to Kericho around 2:30 pm but were held up on account of a tragedy that befell one of our colleagues who was travelling in a separate vehicle. By the time we were clearing things up, it was well past 4 pm and we were passing Kikopey at around 5:30 pm. That is when our troubles truly began. When we first saw the long string of taillights we didn't think anything of it. We should have paid attention to the lack of oncoming headlights, though, because when we finally became part of the traffic jam we had no idea we would be in it for eight hours. Yes, eight hours! We got through the Gilgil weigh bridge well after 2 am in the morning. Everything that I have come to loath about driving in Nairobi was on stark display on that stretch of tarmac between Nakuru and Gilgil: selfishness, aggression, bullying, recklessness and that peculiar Kenyan trait: ujuaji.

It turns out that there was a Passing Out Parade earlier in the day from the National Youth Service campus in Gilgil and waheshimiwa had graced the occasion. At least that is the version of events we were fed by other hapless road users. When the event was over, there was a mad scramble to leave the venue by the invited dignitaries and the family members of the NYS graduands while battling the usual heavy traffic on the busy highway. It was a madhouse. By the time we arrived, things had been stuck for four hours with no sign of resolution in sight. We were lucky, in a manner of speaking: our driver is a hardcore Nairobi driver and he will steal every advantage in traffic to get ahead. Essentially, for our comfort, he encapsulated every hateful habit of a matatu driver that drives me up the wall.

It occurs to me that broken systems encourage the worst behaviour even in the most reasonable and levelheaded humans. No system is as broken as our transport system, a mishmash of national and county government policies, rules and regulations enforced by multiple public entities without coherence or cohesion. Road designers and builders concentrate almost exclusively on designing and building roads without seriously considering the plight of non-motorised transport or non-driving road users. Law enforcement agencies, both national and county, are not really interested in safety as much as in the venue they can collect from fines imposed on traffic offenders. Pedestrians and other non-motorised transport users will sally forth into oncoming traffic secure in the knowledge that motorists will give them priority - a truism that has proven to be illusory if the statistics of dead and injured pedestrians are anything to go by. In any case, how we transport people and goods in Kenya is characterised by chaos, delays, damage, injury and death.

Everything that could go wrong on that day did. Everything that we could do to make things worse, we did. And when it started raining, the situation worsened by a factor of ten. Traffic to Nakuru came to a complete standstill. Traffic to Gilgil weigh bridge inched forward - and I mean inched. Traffic joining the highway from Gilgil town was at a complete standstill - I'm not even sure when they were allowed t join the highway. We were overlapping - that Kenyan expression that means something other than what athletes think it does - three deep. The more ambitious among us were driving off-road and getting stuck in black-cotton-mud in the bargain. Tempers were short and it is a miracle no one got shot by an angry motorist. The losses in terms of time and money must have been enormous. Yet it is almost certain that no one is seriously engaging with these issues in order to make things better. James Macharia does not seem the type to seriously grapple with these kinds of issues if it means taking time away from his pie-in-the-sky procurement-driven schemes.

I eventually made it home at 5 am in the morning - more than fifteen hours after setting off from Kisumu to a house that was shrouded in darkness because I couldn't recharge my pre-paid electricity meter on account that before my departure, we hadn't had electricity for two days! My fridge had defrosted completely, food had gone bad, and the house smelled something awful. My app-based taxi guy tried to swindle me of the fare by pretending he hadn't activated the app when the journey began - the Uber-isation of taxicabs is a hit-or-miss affair in Kenya. The yelling was enough to bring the watchman to the barrier to find out who was murdering who. In Kenya, the only people who suffer little to no friction as they go about their best lives are people with money. The vast majority of Kenyans are not in that category and it shows.

They all fall, eventually

The member of the National Assembly for Mumias East is a spectacularly unpleasant character. But he is not unique. A former member of the Na...