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The ancient truck labouring up the hill followed by a long queue of vehicles looked like a typical Kenyan scene — except for the legs protruding from under the bonnet. A Mafia hit? No, the legs were moving. Then I realised the bonnet was jammed slightly open and the man was adjusting some fault to keep the engine running while the truck proceeded.
Even for Kenya this was bizarre, but only slightly more unusual than the daily chaos on the roads, where almost anything goes; from enormous potholes capable of cracking the axle of normal cars, to abandoned or broken down trucks, to the swarms of battered, unroadworthy and brightly decorated matatu minibuses, driven by people whose brains appear to have been removed. A colleague recently saw a matatu swing across three lanes of traffic to smash into an unsuspecting car for no apparent reason. Matatus are the only available transport for many Kenyans but climbing into one is a daily and possibly terminal gamble. They are notorious for terrible accidents, often when smashing into oncoming trucks while overtaking on bends or hills. Matatus, like other vehicles, including huge trucks, often travel without lights at night. Matatus break down frequently, leaving a group of disconsolate passengers beside the road while the driver and tout (who takes the fares) try to change a wheel or mend the engine, creating another hazardous obstruction. Combined with the entirely selfish habits of other Kenyan drivers who think nothing of jamming a junction to get a slight advantage over other traffic, the minibuses cause the daily commute to frequently turn into a frustrating calvary with jams that last for hours. All this is made worse by regulations requiring drivers involved in an accident, even a minor shunt, to desist from moving their cars until the police arrive – which can be many hours.
The traffic police often seem only tangentially interested in the chaos, standing on the verge watching as cars, trucks and buses become increasingly interlocked in flagrant disregard for the law and traffic lights. Sorting out the mess seems important to only a few of them. That is perhaps because their main activity, according to most Kenyans, is to extort bribes to supplement their meagre wages. Their favourite victims are matatus and trucks who are allowed to pass, on payment of small bribes. Traffic experts say the delay caused by police roadblocks can add a day to the journey from Mombasa port through central Kenya to Uganda and neighbouring countries.
Like all criminal activity, this extortion of bribes increases at certain predictable times. On a recent one-hour drive to the lakeside town of Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi, I had to concentrate hard to avoid being stopped in one of at least eight police roadblocks. “Of course, it is Christmas, they need money,” said one Kenyan friend.