Baby, You Can Drive My Car (just don’t drive in Nairobi!)

22 Sep

Hi all! My calendar is telling me I’ve been living and working in Kenya for 50 days now! Doesn’t seem like it, but a calendar is so unbiased I’ll have to believe it.

Without further adieu, I must share the highlight of my week – I got to drive for the first time here! I love to drive and I’ve missed zipping around in my Ford Focus. I figured I would never drive while in Kenya, but I was wrong! I was screaming like a little girl with excitement during the ride to pick up some supplies for Maono and the day earns a spot on my unofficial “Top 25 Days of My Life” list.

There is a big difference between left and right. Driving on the left side of the road is harder than it sounds. Turning feels especially unnatural. Activating the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals is a common occurrence.

Also, there is a big difference between the United States and Kenya in terms of driving, the main difference being that most Kenyan drivers are crazy. I’ve learned this through driving around in cars, buses, and matatus, but driving myself really hit this truth home. The most dangerous thing is that drivers act selfishly and expect others to react accordingly. We all see this in small doses in the states, but here it’s the norm. Intersections are a nightmare. If there is no traffic guard present (which is usually the case), there is no right of way or flow of traffic whatsoever. Drivers do what they want to do – if they block one direction of traffic just to get one step closer to crossing a road, then so be it. Sometimes, there are stop signs and traffic signals at roundabouts, but literally no one obeys them – and police do not care. I feel like the stop signs here are actually green and say “GO!”

Gary Numan sang these words in his hit song “Cars” – “Here in my car, I feel safest of all.” One thing we know is true – he sure as hell wasn’t driving in Nairobi!

Most Kenyans blame the drivers themselves for the bad driving – and yes, they are selfish and dangerous – but the root cause of the problem is that there is no enforcement of traffic laws! Consider yourself sitting at a red light. There are no cars within miles. You could easily run the light, but you don’t – not because of safety but because of fear of a traffic ticket. We all weigh marginal costs and benefits of our actions, and in Kenya the benefit of getting somewhere faster usually trumps the cost of causing a possible accident. No surprise that there are 12,000 traffic accidents (3,000 deadly) in Kenya each year.

But hey, I’m destined to drive in Kenya – take a look at this sign!

Other driving differences include driving on dirt roads 25% of the time, encountering massive amounts of potholes and speed bumps that can give you a flat in no time flat, and always remembering to use your parking brake – Nairobi has much more elevation change than Ohio.

Here’s a picture of the car – a Toyota Fielder (and that’s my parking job!)

Comparatively speaking, in the United States, I’m an aggressive driver. In Kenya, I’m middle-of-the-road – another instance in which I feel more Kenyan than American.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t told you what happened on my first drive! On the way back, about 50 meters from the entrance to the office, I shattered my left side mirror! A car was parked in my lane and a car coming from the other direction swerved towards me to avoid a pothole. I overreacted and grazed the side mirror of the parked car. Thankfully, no damage was done to the parked car and the framework of my mirror remained intact even though the actual mirror shattered!

I felt awful and stupid, but the Maono staff assured me that everyone has fender-benders¬† – “bashes” – and that this wouldn’t be the last time I drove. And they were right – I’ve driven over 5 times since then, and I’ve been accident-free. I’m happy I had that scare on the first day because I’m much more cautious now and realize that I need to be on my guard at all times while driving.

I even drove by myself the other day to run errands for Maono and to pick up the kids at school. We sang the seasonally-inappropriate song “Oh Holy Night” at the top of our lungs while stuck in a motionless traffic jam. Still haven’t driven at night – and I don’t want to! – there are hardly ever center reflectors, people walk on the road, and drunk driving is widespread and condoned by an alarming amount of people.

I got the mirror repaired, but before that, on a weekend drive, the inyards of the mirror started to come out, and we needed a quick fix. Good thing I always keep a first-aid kit in my backpack –

I think Band-Aid (the corporation) could use this picture in a commercial at some point!

The weekend drive was to Embu, a village in Eastern province (which is actually in the middle of Kenya – this map shows you the provinces along with the cities I’ve visited so far outside of Nairobi – Embu, Nakuru, and Mombasa), to attend a church service that also functioned as a graduation celebration. I’ve been to Embu before – this is where my host Mom grew up – but this was my first experience at a village church service. As is the case with village events that I’ve been to so far, there were many people there (over 500).

There was a lot of dancing to rhythmic tribal-ish music and also many long-winded speeches. Kenyans do not rush through things. These men lead the celebration to honor a member of the leadership team of the church who had earned a P.h.d. in the states. The man on the right spoke Swahili and the other guy translated to the Embu tribe’s native language. I was lost but could understand the basic gist of things.

Usually, I feel like the odd-man-out at these village events because of the color of my skin, and here I especially felt that way! At any given moment, there would usually be at least 10-15 people straight-up staring at me. I’ve never thought I was so interesting until I came to Kenya! It sure does get annoying though – it’s hard to maintain a good-natured attitude about it 100% of the time. I understand that I look much different from what they are used to, but isn’t there some kind of universal sense of politeness? Of course I must remember that what is polite or rude in my culture isn’t necessarily the same in another culture.

I met an MP (Member of Parliament) at dinner after the celebration – I had been invited to eat with a select group of people because my host Mom’s Dad runs the entire church (and manages over 400 churches in Kenya!). I connected with my dinner-mates through humor – like expressing the fact that Kenyan food is so good that I’m worried I’ll return to America looking five months pregnant! We talked mostly about food – someone asked me what we use corn for in the US, and he couldn’t believe me when I picked up my Coke bottle and told him – for sugar! (as well as many other food products – high fructose corn syrup is a scaring thing!)

I got sick that night from the chicken we ate there. Daisy’s brother managed the food at the event and said that many, many people got sick from the chicken! Not a fun night but I submit that it was well worth the delicious meal I ate. Our water at the house also mixed with the sewage line a couple of days back so that could have played a factor in my sickness too.

Now for a few pics from the drive to Embu.

There are seemingly endless fields of rice close to Embu – hard to capture in a photograph – I’ve never seen anything more green. This is where the rice comes from that Nairobians eat.

And villages on the main road sell kilogram upon kilogram of rice –

There are many banana trees in this area as well –

In case any reader of this blog forgot how cute my lil’ bro Kiama is, here’s a reminder – yes, that is a Pikachu comforter.

He always pronounces “I love you” like this – “I love voo.” But yesterday, he said it correctly for the first time! Music to my ears. He’s a really sharp kid. My bet is that he’ll either be a soccer player or an economist when he grows up.

Work update time – I’ve continued work on my current projects (newsletter, business training manuals, etc.) and the newsletter is close to going out! Earlier this week, none of the field officers were available to manage a borrower’s group meeting, so I volunteered. I took a matatu out to Kawangware (a slum west of Nairobi) Wednesday morning and surprisingly found the place with no directional help! The name of the borrowering group is Maisha Poa, meaning “life is cool.” I had a lot of fun at the meeting – Swahili is still a weak spot for me but helping with the management of the groups’ savings and loans is not! The great thing about Maono is that the groups actually deal with their finances on their own – they did most of the work and have the capability of leading their own meetings. Maono’s role is more to oversee the group’s savings/loans activity, train and build business capacity, and ensure that loans are used for income-generating purposes. Running the meeting on my own solidified my confidence in understanding Maono’s operations. Also, I’ve finally mastered the basic greetings/body language stuff so I don’t feel awkward entering a room!

The group members got a crack out of my last name – only one of them could pronounce it correctly, and she was a Luo (a tribe known for speaking good English, sadly because of forced colonial processes) – the members gave her a hard time for it – “are you proud of that?” We shared a bunch of other funny moments.

I’m well over 1,000 words now, so I’ll get back to living the Kenyan life.


4 Responses to “Baby, You Can Drive My Car (just don’t drive in Nairobi!)”

  1. macmcnair September 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    Ben, enjoyed your commentary on driving. Being from New Jersey I grew up driving offensively so when I’ve had the opportunity to drive in Kenya I took the aggressive driving as a welcome challenge. You are absolutely correct about the driving. No where like what we are used to in the Midwest. The first time I drove in Kenya my African friend and driving mentor said “You cannot drive nice. People will move.” I have tried as best I could to implement that philosophy when I drove in Kenya although many times I found myself being conflicted. Thanks for your great blog! Keep up the great work. Blessings, Mac

    • Ben September 22, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

      Hey Mac! New Jersey provides much better training for Nairobi driving than Ohio for sure. Daisy has given me the advice to assume that “everyone is mad, crazy, etc. but YOU” – a defensive technique but one that I’ve been trying to employ, seeing as I do come down on the overly-aggressive side of driving styles. Many people I know just could not handle the driving here – they would be sitting at an intersection all day waiting to make their move! I forgot to mention in my post that I cut off a matatu yesterday – probably won’t do that again, the driver was ANGRY.


  2. J October 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    I thought about your post the other day as I sat at a four way stop for about 60 seconds waiting for someone to go. I was the last one at the intersection. Then, I thought WWWD (What Would Wallingford Do) and then I floored it. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Ben October 4, 2011 at 11:10 am #

      Your timely and effective use of the WWWD concept inspires me to keep my blog posts coming. If you get in a car accident don’t blame it on me though!

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