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Monday, October 10, 2011

getting home


 The Chinese have changed the world. They put up structures that can be seen from space, founded civilisations that have lasted as long as stone and invented gunpowder. They survived Mao's great leap forward, an overindulgent love for lead and the building of the Great Wall that claimed a life for every brick. However at this moment one thing and one thing only will come to the mind of a Nairobian if they are asked about China, the road network that's being built in collaboration with the Chinese government at this very moment. It is an intricate series of flyovers and changeovers to the old order that leaves the directionally challenged such as myself completely distraught . A couple of months ago construction was finished on the first of these projects. A flyover that lies in my path home.

On my way home I have two options to get to the stage, the first is the short route which involves using the old road,a mere 100 metres from start-point to destination. A very tempting prospect since I had on these huge boots, ridiculously heavy shoes with laces hanging out like dog ears, not because that's what fashion dictates but since the last time I wore these shoes and dutifully laced up it took me all of 20 minutes to get them off. The other option, the flyover has a concentric shape, the road snakes up winding through wind and air before finally coming to an end on the other side. This route adds another 800 metres to the journey, but there's something about the new and the unconquered that gets my heart going. So I took this road.



Halfway through there's a spot where if you stand you can see the crater of the former roundabout. It looks like the machines reached down and ripped the very soul out of it, the wound hasn't scabbed over yet and even the cars drive around it in an elliptical path. As you stand here and look down you can see some cars going back but round, some going forward but round and it feels like the road is moving. It gets disorienting, two waves fighting on a turgid sea. It hit me what an achievement this was,a road built not on ground or earth or even water, this road was built on effort, and experience, it's not carried by anything the world gave us but was fashioned and chiselled out of rock, moulded and made from mortar, dreamed and achieved by man. I looked down and everything was smaller then it usually was, the cars at my feet, the other roads beneath this one. They all looked faraway a speck of what they are and that felt right for some reason.

When I got to the stage there was a bunch of people milling around,looking like they had nothing better to do, there was a matatu there too milling around looking like it had nothing better to do. I asked the tout what the price was and he said 30 shillings.
ah ndio maana hakuna mtu anaingia/oh that's why no-one is entering,” I said with a decidedly nonchalant shrug. The look he gave me could have burned holes in the ozone.

I had witnessed a few of these battle of wills between producers and consumers when both centres of economic power have a united front. The strike can last for ages so I took out a book and settled down to read. Turns out I didn't have to do this since drama was in the air. This time in the form of a matatu driver who forgot there was no U in turn, well there is but there’s no u-turn in tightly packed roads where there is barely space for two lanes. A sharp policeman saw him and waved him down the not too sharp driver decided he could get away. There then ensued one of the shortest, most bizarre car chases I ever saw. The matatu was moving fast but not too fast since it had to start from zero and Porsche recently stopped producing their line of luxury passenger transport. The policeman was a Kalenjin. While the Maasai warrior is the image of Kenyan most foreigners carry in their heads the people who have done the most to keep our national memory in the collective international consciousness is the Kalenjin runner. Winning marathon after marathon, taking the first, second, third and many a time fifth place in the middle distance runs. There's a running joke(though not intended this pun is glad to have been discovered) that has to do with the fact that a large proportion of the policemen in the country are kalenjin, a friend of mine once talked about being in a European country and still expecting policial accosting to be accompanied by the accent associated with the Kalenjin.(it's much funnier when he says it.) Anyway, this policeman too was a runner, he caught up to the matatu in no time and pulled it over to the side of the road.

The tout from earlier (the ozone destroyer-who was not really a tout but an in-between, he's the guy who stands at a stage and whose job it is to motivate passengers to enter the matatu, this is also the guy who has all the power in terms of price control since as soon as a matatu comes to the stage a quick consultation and decision on price is reached between the triumvirate of him, actual tout and driver) came to commiserate with us on the wrong ways of matatu drivers. He gave the very sage opinion that had the driver not run away there wouldn't have been such a hoopla, I took the very sage option of agreeing with him. In a few minutes the tout began walking further up the road I followed on a whim. The whim being my experience that if you just shrug your shoulders the universe will take care of you.

A few hundred metres in front there was another stage, being controlled by the same guy as before meaning that the price was the same. At this point for no reason at all I decided to walk home. I wasn't alone and in fact the tout was with us in this exodus spreading the virus of high prices further and further away. But I trudged along having fed my mind lines of how walking is actually good for you telling myself look at the weather right now the sun is out yawning in yellow making everything pretty and optimistic. I was ready to walk the rest of the way because I do not cross picket lines. Turns out I didn't have to.

Another few hundred metres away there was a pick-up truck waiting. It was the kind that had been used for cattle until the owner saw the advantage of hastily putting together some benches and saying it was ready for passenger transport. I jumped into this contraption ready to go the rest of the way, imagine my shock when it turned out the price controller was in charge of this too. He hastily took fares from everyone, 20/= this time. One lady hesitated before handing it over
mbona unajifanya haujui story na we ni mwenyeji?/ why are you acting like you don't know this is done, you've been here before,you're an old hand.”



I sat witnessing this and realising that I had stumbled into another business transaction in the peeling onion that is the Kenyan economy. The price controller was eating on both sides,charging the matatu drivers and touts for making a racket and ostensibly bringing them higher prices while at the same time charging these other guys, the ones in the pick-up, for keeping the matatu prices so artificially high a black market transport economy could materialise.

So now I was in the back of one of these rickety trucks with no way of letting the driver know it was my stage at the same time so impressed by all that had taken place that I wanted to put it all down in my notebook so that I wouldn’t forget a process that left me lost in spaces between lines, spaces where scribbles became unintelligent prompts of memory.