So, picture the scene, on Tuesday morning (yesterday) in Nairobi; it's been raining heavily, state schools have just reopened, it's the beginning of the month (ie take the car to work as there's a little money in your pocket) and there's a city-wide fuel shortage. My husband describes this as 'the perfect storm' traffic-wise - ie. more chaos than normal, gridlock on the streets of Nairobi.
We are relieved about the rain since they are late, so we were almost convinced they would not come. But the fuel shortage is not good. For the past two days, cars have been queuing up outside any petrol station that has fuel (others are turning customers away) - motorists are queuing for up to an hour to buy petrol, snaking back onto main roads, causing disruption all over town. Cars have even been left abandoned on the roadside as they grind to a fuel starved halt, adding to the traffic problem.
One of the reasons that a short lived fuel shortage has such a profound effect is the fact that so many drivers will customarily be putting very small amounts of fuel in their tanks at a time (a couple of hundred shillings or the equivalent of a few English pounds at a time), which I guess might explain why there's a petrol station every hundred metres in Nairobi - drivers must be lurching from one to the next. This was also true in Tanzania. I remember getting taxis to and from work; our first stop would always be the petrol station where I would pay an 'advance' or part of the taxi fare direct to the pump attendant, in order for the driver to buy enough fuel to get me a couple of kilometres down the road. This is how it is in Africa.
Government explanations have been slow or unforthcoming on the current crisis - today they say there's tons of fuel at the main depot but they claim marketeers failed to get organised around the holiday weekend to ensure an uninterrupted supply to the marketplace. Local news reports that there's no fuel in Eldoret town - chaos there too. Housewives like me on school runs have been speculating wildly; shortage due to middle east crisis, down to local marketeers holding out for higher prices (fuel prices have rocketed from 70/ per litre to 112/- over a matter of weeks), fuel crisis due to Bin Laden's assassination?!
In fact, the fuel shortage will probably be a storm in a teacup. No doubt fuel supplies will be back to normal by the end of the week (I hope so, I'm down within my last quarter of a tank) - but what won't change is that the higher price of fuel and as a direct consequence - the cost of basic foods rising, is causing a real hike in the cost of living for Kenyans generally. This was highlighted in Labour/Workers Day discussions at the weekend. Teachers are demanding a 200% pay rise in order to make ends meet. Non tax paying MPs in a bloated cabinet double the size that it should be and corruption filtering down to all levels of society is both galling to ordinary citizens and not a help. Will society be disgruntled enough to act? Civil society groups have already staged some demonstrations and more are planned.
Since the government acts with impunity on corruption, it seems that all sorts of other characters are jumping on the bandwagon. I've heard a rash of stories from friends concerning petty crime recently. Cheques being tampered with, one audaciously changed words and numbers from 50,000 to 500,000 and the bank actually allowed it through! (I guess they were acting quickly before bank rules officially change on altered cheques being disallowed from 13th June). There have been building contractors going AWOL with money.
There was also the story of a bank issuing fake foreign currency/dollar notes stashed within a bundle of real ones, house staff stealing cash from handbags and also even stealing food and cleaning products from store cupboards then reselling them on the street. Saloon cars with blacked out windows cruising about, following residents through their gates then once inside the plot accessing houses to stealing phones, computers, TVs, cash at gun point.
While the government promises to enact measures to shield the poor from rising prices (presumably by taxing middle class workers and businesses more), it seems inevitable that, following the lead of the developed world, times are set to get trickier in Kenya for a while. At least, unlike the West, the growth in the Kenya economy keeps on rising - just hold onto your wallets and watch you back as you enjoy the ride!