On the Streets of Nairobi


Driving in the streets of Nairobi is a nightmare. But the more you do it, the more 'normal' it becomes, to the point that when you go on home leave, you transform yourself into a nightmare to other civilized drivers. After living in Nairobi for three years, I have become a fierce driver myself. When I go back to the US and rent a car, I risk ending up in jail every time I hit the road.

In Nairobi, there are potholes the size of baby pools. These are particularly dangerous during the rainy seasons (September-December and April-June), when they are filled with water and are, thus, camouflaged until you hit one of them. The painful thump that your car makes is sheer agony. That is when you cringe, swear out loud, damn the lack of accountability of greedy politicians and continue driving.

At night, street lights are rare and darkness is thick, interrupted only by the high beams of cars coming the opposite way. This is a classic. The lights blind you and you are forced to slow down. You look slightly to the side of the road, to make sure your car does not veer into the ditch that marks the end of the rudimentary asphalt patches.

Then of course there are the carjackers, always a looming threat around here. Stories about which roads to avoid at night abound, and they vary according to the latest rumor of the most recent incident. It is always best to stick to the main roads and never take shortcuts after 9 pm. It is also advisable to always be aware of who is driving behind you and in front of you, as well as existing safe places on your route. This means you become adept at reconnaissance. You know your landscape: the location of key gas stations, quick entrances into malls and stretches of roads that are likely to be lit.

Finally, there are the matatus, the local minibuses that are the heartbeat of the city. Most of the times you hate them, because they do not abide by the law and drive you insane, especially during traffic jams. Matatu drivers are arrogant. They feel entitled to cut the line, go on sidewalks, drive down the wrong side of the road, cut you off at roundabouts and endanger your life, along with those of the dozen people they carry.

Matatus are so wild and their behavior so outrageous, that at the end of the day you end up loving them, because they are as unreal as they are Kenyan. Matatus are also mobile narratives of all that is hip in the country. Spray painted portraits and statements are commonplace. Usually, they are music-related: Puff Daddy, Alicia Keys and the Black Eyed Peas. Sometimes, English football is featured (soccer in the U.S.) with Manchester United or Arsenal contending for space. Occasionally, it isreferences to Bible passages.

However, since the post-election violence that rocked Kenya earlier this year, matatu art has taken on a political slant. Portraits of Kofi Annan can be seen next to statements like "The Peacemaker" or "The Mediator." Lately, matatus have also focused on the U.S. elections. Several times, I have spotted a flattering portrait of Barack Obama, whose origins are Kenyan. When I see Barack's portrait, I can't help but smile and forgive all matatu drivers at once, for their crazy behavior and for continuously putting my life at risk. Such is life on the streets of Nairobi.

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