Of our narrow roads and impatient drivers who make everything worse

Traffic jam

Traffic jam along the Mai Mahiu-Naivasha road on December 24, 2021 as Kenyans travelled upcountry for Christmas and New Year festivities. Kenya’s busiest highways tend to be one-way affairs.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

One of the most mystifying policies of independent Kenya is the obdurate persistence in maintaining the country’s busiest road transport arteries as single-lane affairs.

From Mombasa to Nairobi, then all the way to Malaba border town through Nakuru and Eldoret, or to that most idyllic of lakeside metropolis, Kisumu through Kericho, our trunk road system is a slow-moving, dangerously congested mess at the best of times. Haste, that favourite cousin of capitalist efficiency, is dangerous.

Nevertheless, the most sedate and scrupulous of motorists can, and often fall victim of freewheeling youngsters at the helm of overloaded and ill-maintained prime movers or their brother, the exasperatingly exuberant Subaru boy, as frequently intoxicated as he is addled by delusions of motorsport virtuosity.

To these principal perils, add the matatu, our swashbuckling champions of headlong impunity, for whom the highway code is utterly and eternally meaningless, and you have a proper nightmare on the road.

In any event, the roads are too narrow to handle ever-growing traffic volume, and even the most sedulous compliance with commuting mores can never mitigate the harrowing constipation on our highways.

Head-on collisions

Every weekend from Friday to Sunday, the trunk roads become throbbing sites of stormy dramas as Kenyans escape the cities, and return to work thereafter. Desperate attempts to overtake a long, slow-moving queue are typically thwarted by headlight-flashing, onslaught of hurtling, horn-blaring intolerance, forcing drivers to scoot back to lane, scraping a few fenders in the process. As often as not, full-frontal head-on collisions occur, and then the road becomes a gridlock of desperate travellers trapped in their impatience.

It is the big breaks, however, that are the ultimate rites of passage in Kenya. Easter, Christmas and, it seems to me, the entire August, that month of festivity. Images of travellers captured in inescapable pileups are now common, as roads are converted into chaotic muddles, 8-lane multidirectional hostage situations that take days to untangle.

In December, this madness is scheduled to commence, without fail, on the 21st of December, take a break on Christmas and resume in earnest on 30th, until schools reopen. Look forward to a heart-breaking experience, integral to Kenya’s vigorously cruel rites of passage.

Highway drama

I was once caught up right in the middle of it. Christmas Eve, I was part of a crawling throng of assorted travellers, inching their excruciating course along the Nakuru Highway. There had been three pile-ups involving multiple vehicles by the time we reached Kijabe, and it was getting testier with every mile.

As we descended the slope approaching Naivasha, things slowed down to very hesitant progress, before coming to a stop. For half an hour, engines were hopefully left running. Afterwards, drivers stepped out of their vehicles to survey the scene before rushing back to start the cars in vain hopes of a breakthrough.

The highway filled steadily. Matatu ploughed with brazen confidence into the verges and rough reserves beside the road, then came to a stop before some implacable barrier or other, without room to reverse or turn back.

After an hour trapped in the tarmac with nothing to do but observe the captivating proceedings, I resolved to find a way to the far side and park for a few hours. Having maneouvred appropriately, amid tremendous hardship, I finally reached the desired spot.

Whereupon I beheld a Probox depart the highway at great velocity and, displaying resolve and confidence, embark on a dusty parallel road, perhaps half a mile apart. The white squat, doughty menacing wagon raised a billowing pall of volcanic ash as it tore through the rough country track, and its progress in the direction of Nakuru was captivating.

I had seen enough. Resolving that my modest contraption was nevertheless a superior offroader to the Probox, I swung into the shrubby reserve and traversed the grassy field on my way to the dust track. In about four minutes, I was on the desolate, rocky moonscape, cruising in the wake of a Probox.

Visibility drastically diminished due to heavier dust as I gained on it. Soon enough, it was the full fog light drama on a sunny mid-afternoon as we negotiated with stormy headwinds, weaving rapidly through sharp twists and turns. The Probox plunged further inland, then disappeared round a bend.

Probox driver

On negotiating the bend, I found myself in a verdant field, with sheep and calves and dogs and chicken. The Probox was parked near a tree, where its driver, a portly old chap, had assumed the position. Disappointed, I executed a u-turn, and was stunned by the arrival of several other cars in rapid succession. Alarmed, the sprightly Probox driver fled whilst desperately tugging at trousers which threatened to gather at his ankles.

We had abandoned the homeward highway to follow a man who, pressed by his own problems, was rushing to his farm. I reached Nakuru at 10 p.m.

Like those headlong Azimio diehards, I had not bothered to ascertain whether the man I was following was headed in my desired destination. I hope that our trunk roads will be expanded one day soon. Drive carefully, always.

Mr Ng’eno is an advocate of the High Court.

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