Friday, September 16, 2011

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...

24 comments:

Sasha MacSween said...

I absolutely LOVE your blog. We moved to Nairobi 3 weeks ago from 7 years in Paris, and since February when we heard we would be moving here, I have been reading your blog avidly - so it's great to have you back! And now that we are in Nairobi, I can understand what you mean by Nairobi traffic! Even Paris traffic does not prepare you for this! We are temporarily staying near Junction, and kids school and husband's office is in Karen - so the morning drop off can take anything up to 2 hours... But still, even with the traffic, and after only 3 weeks here, it is great to be here.
And thank you for your wonderful blog!

Anonymous said...

2 words: Landcruiser, bullbar.

Anonymous said...

Glad to have you back!
Reading about your traffic made me tense. I will be heading into Los Angeles rush hour soon, which seems bad enough, but probably nothing compared to what you deal with.

Have you tried walking? Probably not an option!
Angela

Robyn said...

Well done for reading your piece!Scary indeed! But - if you can handle NBO traffic, i think anything is possible!
PS- there is nothing wrong with school buses! :)

Africa Expat Wife said...

Thanks for tips on handling Nairobi traffic! Walking? Funnily enough, a friend of my 8 year old daughter got out of her car on Chiromo Road and walked to school the other day because of gridlock. My daughter said that she'd walked for nearly a whole hour to get to school! In reality, was probably nearer 30mins but still.

Welcome to Nairobi Sasha and thanks for reading!

klara said...

Hi! I and my family also arrived in Nairobi only a couple of weeks ago. I've been reading your blog since we found out about our posting to Nairobi and I'd like to say a big THANK YOU for the blog!

Before moving here we lived in Asia for 7 years (first 3 years in Ho Chi Minh City and then 4 years in Bangkok). People told us how bad the traffic is in Nairobi. Having now experienced it first hand, I don't entirely agree. In my opinion, the traffic here is definitely slow but not as chaotic, and certainly not as noisy and unpredictable as in Bangkok and HCMC.

By the way, we're planning to go to the Storymoja festival tomorrow so I might change my opinion...

Klara

Anonymous said...

The traffic is the reason why I sold my car and take matatu (that and fuel prices)!!

Anonymous said...

Ofcourse, non of you have driven in India (Mumbai)...you can barely cross the road as well should you decide to ditch your car in frustration and let's not gett into ducking the Rickshaws and Lazying cows!!!!, How of Bangladesh... OMG!!!I also doubt you've been to Italy or Nigeria ...!!! True,
Kenyan drivers do not have the fabulous road manners of UK drivers but we try what we can and the roads/flyovers are under construction if you care to look properly....

Anonymous said...

So pleased to see you back.
I always try to beat the estimated arrival time on the gps, isn't that why they put it there?
calwineman

Anonymous said...

Thank you for coming back!!

CHULALA said...

very true about the traffic..lets follow each other
chuchu-chulala.blogspot.com/ other
chuchu-chulala.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Wlaking? In Nairobi? Not an option! There are few pavements and you would die of exhaust fumes! I was out walking one day in our quiet neighbourhood and got knocked by a CD car - did they stop? Did they hell! I reported it to the involved Mission and did I hear anything? Nope!

and for my next life. . . said...

Welcome back! A friend who lives in Ngong leaves the house at 5:00 am for her job in Westlands. Via matatu. When in Kenya I spend most of my time blissfully in rural areas. I admire your nerve.

Simon said...

I'm soon moving to Kenya, and after my visit in August know exactly what you mean. Lavington to JKIA and back to drop the fiance took 5 hours. Next flights are booked to land at 6:50 am on a saturday. I love the fact drivers ignore the red lights on roundabouts. What Nairobi needs is more traffic lights, and some enforcement. Junctions are particularly chatoic. And nobody wants to give way - hence the jams. Once settled for visits to Nairobi I plan on getting a dirt bike, and body armour ;-)

Anonymous said...

Lol Simon, in Nairobi you dont 'give way' you 'Take way' otherwise you might as well switch off the car and have a nap coz no one else will.

Mummy Tales said...

Nairobi traffic can try even the most patient of people. You just need to organize yourself very well if you want to get to wherever it is you're going on time. Only hope the president or prime minister aren't going somewhere and passing your way. But Nairobi is great, having been born and bred here. Its a wonderful place to be. A warm welcome to all of you who are new to the country:-).

Tim Tim said...

Tom Tom's can now work in Kenya.

bankelele said...

Hmm, it seems we were in the same travel writing session at the HayFest

Africa Expat Wife said...

Bankelele - oh my goodness! Perhaps I would have known that if I hadn't arrived late

Africa Expat Wife said...

Bankelele - oh my goodness! Perhaps I would have known that if I hadn't arrived late

Min said...

Hi...me too, a late arrival at the same travel writing session. Yup, another mzungu housewife...I brought lots of money, was all set to support the festival by buying some books, but there were none available, at least not on that first day. Had a good time though, learned something, but didn't go back. Not worth the traffic hassle.

Anonymous said...

Hey,always loved your blog,though a few times u take the tone of the patronising mzungu,mercifully it's not too often to put most kenyans off your blog.
I've often wondered if you trully have any kenyan friends other than the friends you've made from the expat community?I don't blame you as a Kenyan,cos sometimes both sides tip toe too much around one another,cos of different back grounds,social status etc which prevents people from having proper friendships.
Nways now I know its true,they've been saying kenyan drivers are v.bad and uncourteous in traffic,taking the no.1 spot now are matatu drivers then kenyan women drivers who hassle & give matatu drivers abit of a scare and then mzungu chicks who gnarl as they forge ahead especially at those unforgiving junctions,hey you gotta tough it out girl,yeah though we will often roll down our windows and hurl at you to 'go back to your country,' or 'wewe mzungu' and sometime 'ng'ombe and other uprintables',but that's the only way to survive the nrb traffic,hopefully your window is rolled up!

Africa Expat Wife said...

Hi Anon,
Ha, ha - I like your description of a 'gnarling' mzungu chick!

Sorry if there's ever a patronising tone in this blog - not intentional, however I notice that lots of readers take even vaguely negative comments on Kenya from a foreigner, very personally. As Brits, we slam and critise our own country and its government regularly, so don't see it as a problem! (perhaps we are less patriotic, our press is too ruthless)

Re Kenyan friends:
I do have a few. I work with Kenyans, my kids are friends with Kenyan kids, we do sleepovers etc. I know their mums well, we chat in the playground, go to each others houses.
These days I am often the only mzungu out of 15-20 Kenyans taking part in exercise classes (which I thoroughly enjoy). We dance to Lingala music and I shake my booty, the same as everyone else! I guess I stick out like a sore thumb.

My kids have some fab Kenyan teachers whom I respect very much and have known for years now. They have taken my kids on incredible school trips round the country, which I am very grateful for.

It's still a bubble, but it's definitely a mixed one...

Africa Expat Wife said...

Hi Anon,
Ha, ha - I like your description of a 'gnarling' mzungu chick!

Sorry if there's ever a patronising tone in this blog - not intentional, however I notice that lots of readers take even vaguely negative comments on Kenya from a foreigner, very personally. As Brits, we slam and critise our own country and its government regularly, so don't see it as a problem! (perhaps we are less patriotic, our press is too ruthless)

Re Kenyan friends:
I do have a few. I work with Kenyans, my kids are friends with Kenyan kids, we do sleepovers etc. I know their mums well, we chat in the playground, go to each others houses.
These days I am often the only mzungu out of 15-20 Kenyans taking part in exercise classes (which I thoroughly enjoy). We dance to Lingala music and I shake my booty, the same as everyone else! I guess I stick out like a sore thumb.

My kids have some fab Kenyan teachers whom I respect very much and have known for years now. They have taken my kids on incredible school trips round the country, which I am very grateful for.

It's still a bubble, but it's definitely a mixed one...