Wednesday, August 5

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Getting around

The U.S. State Department offers potential visitors to Kenya the following warning about driving:

“Excessive speed, unpredictable local driving habits and manners, poor vehicle maintenance, bumpy, potholed and unpaved roads, and the lack of basic safety equipment on many vehicles are daily hazards on Kenyan roads. When there is a heavy traffic jam either due to rush hour or because of an accident, drivers will drive across the median strip and drive directly toward oncoming traffic. There are often fatal accidents involving long-distance, inter-city buses, or local buses called “matatus.” Matatus are known to be the greatest danger to other vehicles or pedestrians on the road. They are typically driven too fast and erratically.”

Had I bothered to read this or anything the State Department wrote regarding Kenya before making my decision about this year, I would have been a touch more wary about coming. Had I known that the matatus would be our basic form of transportation, I would have been straight up terrified. Good thing I didn't. I guess.

For what it's worth, it's all true. The driving habits are unpredictable, the vehicles are poorly maintained, the roads are in worse condition still and probably the only thing keeping there from being too much excessive speeding is the aforementioned poor vehicle maintenance. When a student protest outside the local university shut down part of the highway, our matatu driver had no problem pulling a U-turn across the median to avoid waiting for police to break them up. There must be a shortage of blinker fluid, too, as I can't recall the last time I saw a turn signal used. As a three-and-a-half week resident of the Republic of Kenya, I find no exaggeration in this piece.

But that's part of the fun. You never know what to expect. The delay in getting from Point A to Point B is no longer a necessary evil but an adventure.

Consider the matatu. It's a hollowed-out van with room only for rows of seating that would be more appropriate in a school bus. They are used for everything from long-distance inter-city travel to getting around town. There are defined routes, thankfully, but they pass through erratically. Even when you see one, it's not guaranteed that you will get a ride as they can only carry 14 passengers and fill quickly. The only schedule the drivers follow is leaving from the lot, an ocean of matatus packed as tight as possible at every conceivable angle, once they're full. There are no prescribed stops either. When you want to get on, you raise your hand. When you want to get off, you tap the conductor on the shoulder.

In spite of their omnipresence in Kenya, or possible because of it, every matatu is a world unto itself. Drivers seem free to decorate their vehicle in whatever way they see fit. I have ridden in matatus which are miniature shrines to the Sacred Heart and others devoted to Arsenal. Walking through the lot, I pass back windshields with room only for portraits of 2-Pac or Bob Marley or Christina Aguilera. Matatus at night are obvious. They're the ones with undercarriage and flashing lights all over the exterior. The seats may be covered in material better suited to curtains or in vinyl printed with a grossly pixelated flock of flamingos. Catching a ride back from a farm outside of town, the mutatu had the most terrible, most amateur music video I had ever seen on loop. Do not ever search for Rose Muhando on YouTube lest you see it yourself.

Yes, they are dangerous. I haven't seen a seatbelt yet, and conductors have no trouble throwing open the sliding door and hopping out while the matatus still in motion in order to move passengers in and out faster. Still,they're better than any of the other options. I haven't yet had the courage to hail a motorcycle or boda boda, a bicycle outfitted with a passenger seat, neither of which offer a helmet. And the matatu is a far sight faster and safer than walking. On the totem pole of priority on the streets, pedestrians come in dead last. It's their duty to jump out of the way when matatus, cars, motorcycles, tuk tuks and boda bodas come down the street, and pedestrians spend a lot of time on the streets as the sidewalks are overcrowded with vendors of newspapers and bootleg DVDs of movies released last week. Crosswalks would probably strike most Kenyans as a funny idea, too. If you want to cross the street, you take a hard turn, look right and left and go if no one is too close.

Kenya's principal source of tourism is the safari, promises of adventure on the savanna and in the wild. The tourism board may as well admit that getting to your hotel will be adventure enough for most.

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