01 02 03 Africa Expat Wives Club: Nairobi has ground to a halt 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Nairobi has ground to a halt

Apologies for the long hiatus in writing ... I needed to take a very deep breath (especially after that Sarara pos).  Now I'm ready to return and 'get everybody's backs up' (this is how a friend recently described my blog) once again.

It's true, Nairobi has ground to a halt, why? Because of the traffic.  I heard on the radio last week that Nairobi's traffic is ranked fourth worst globally after Mexico City, Shenzhen and Beijing.  I can well believe it.

I used to think nothing of nipping into Westlands, crossing up to Muthaiga, shopping on Mombasa road whereas now the mention of any of these places sends an absolute chill down my spine.

Last week I opted to drive my kids into school rather than use the bus because our youngest (aged 6) was starting there for the first time.  Sweet.  However, after four days my sentimentality had simply turned to road rage. I was spending more than 3 hours in the car each day to travel just a few kilometres.  I'm ashamed to say that at one point, while static in traffic, I told my kids that we should leave Nairobi and live in England instead (unforgivable!), just because of the traffic.  They all looked a bit upset.

After a couple of days in, I learned that you have to tackle the problem of Nairobi traffic by employing the tactics of a soldier in combat.

1.  Never let down your guard - anything could happen - generally a mini-bus/matatu will appear out of nowhere, someone will indicate left then turn off right, pedestrians step out, you get carved up.
2. Employ covert ops - leave the house before dawn (or after 10am).  If you are on the road by 6.30am you can get anywhere you want to go in 30 minutes.  6.50am and you are looking at an hour's travel, minimum, 7.30am - 2 hours.
3.  Keep calm.  Getting apoplectic with rage when the umpteenth person has cut in front of you will not help with your blood pressure problems.
4. Channel your aggression - have the courage of your convictions and push out at junctions - don't give in to last minute nerves or reservations.

storymoja Hay festival at Nairobi Railway Club grounds
When my mum emailed me to tell me that she had read about a Hay/Storymoja literary festival taking place in Nairobi this weekend, I was excited.  When I looked at the website and saw that the venue was the Railway Club Ground, my heart sank.  It didn't help that on the website, the Google map had the red arrow pointing at exactly the wrong place - somewhere on Forest Road.  To get there would be a nightmare in Nairobi traffic.

However, I felt brave.  Ready for battle; I set out mid morning leaving a generous hour for the journey (we are talking about a venue that is only 5 or 6 kilometres from my house).  All was going well until I made the schoolboy error of falling off Upper Hill the wrong way, only to find myself doing a loop at less than walking speed round Uhuru park, all the while jammed in city traffic along Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway, with traffic lights on roundabouts that didn't work and policemen holding us up. 

I finally arrived at the showground at 11.15 after already doing a U turn inside the Railway Club itself which is on the opposite side of the road (the lecture I wanted to attend started at 11am).  I arrived at the Railway club grounds.  There was no one there and I wondered if I was in the right place but at least there were some promising white tents across the way. 

Once parked up, an askari (watchman) dressed in green ambled over and told me to re-park my car 'properly', ie at a 45 degree angle rather than straight.  I looked around the deserted field and wondered if he was joking.  Apparently he wasn't.  Another askari joined him and I was outnumbered.  I also wondeedr if there were any loos in the vicinity.  A coffee before leaving home was ill advised.

I get to the ticket sales tent.  There are a few trendy young people manning it, but no programmes for the weekends events and other people are vaguely stringing up bunting and sticking banners into the ground here and there.  Wires to sounds systems snake across the grass.  I ask if any of the lectures have started. 
'Yes' an organiser says, 'I think they started five minutes ago.'
Not too bad, I think to myself - I'm now nearly half an hour late.

The travel writer from London that I'd gone to listen to did not looked impressed by my late arrival nor, to be honest, was he impressed the paltry turn out of fifteen people tops.  A technician was testing a microphone in the tent throughout our session, there were various other crashes, bangs and interruptions.  As the sun appeared from behind a cloud at around midday, the tent began to get swelter inside. 

From past experience of attending these writers' workshops in Nairobi, I knew before arriving that the well-known foreign writers who have been invited to exciting Nairobi to look out for fresh/new Kenyan talent are disappointed to see some washed-up mzungu housewife tagging along for the ride - but I guess you have to develop a thick skin and get what you can out of these situations anyway.

We all had to produce a short piece of travel writing highlighting a place or aspect of Nairobi life that is unique, interesting and off the beaten track - then read it out in front of everybody.  Again, scary.  Some of the Kenyan writers were indeed very good.  My voice cracked as I read my piece and I'd made it far too long.

A Telegraph journalist from London who sat in on our session asked at the end;
'Will you come back to any other events over the weekend?'
'Um, I'm not sure - it's the traffic you see.'

I then spent another hour sitting in traffic to get to the nearest shopping centre en route to the children's school to pick up a coffee and some lunch - in the shopping centre carpark, my parking space was stolen by someone who carved me up through the barrier at the last minute - after I'd patiently waited for 10 minutes for a couple of ladies to take their time loading bags into the car.  Another 3 hours in traffic on the clock already and I wasn't even home yet. Grr.

Off I go now, blazing into Friday afternoon's finest rush hour.  It's sure to be an adventure. Suddenly I wonder why I ever leave the house?!

Let's hope that all these new highways that have been under construction for what seems like years now, will make a difference once they are finally open.  As it is, this city is unworkable.

p.s. We went to England over the summer and used a GPS while there. We bought one last year on ebay for the visit, then somehow lost it during the year in Kenya so had to buy another one since having a Satnav is far preferable to tense map reading.  Having said that, we did find ourselves inexplicably travelling down some random green lanes having relied completely on our new best friend 'Tom Tom'.

My question is; does anybody else's husband look at the estimated arrival time on the satnav and then take this time on as a personal challenge - some sort of throwing down of a gauntlet?  His foot presses to the floor as he tries to shave minutes off our arrival time.  Adding minutes while stuck in traffic ups the ante - not only do we have to beat the original journey time estimate but make up lost time too...

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