A LOT of Traveling!
It should seem like nothing after enduring a flight half way around the globe, but the couple of thousand kilometers I’ve covered here in Africa over the past week have been LONG. I can’t describe the vast majority of their highways, I know of nothing to which I can compare them. And though some of the drivers believe that others of the drivers are going way too fast, speed is relative. We have streets in most U.S. cities which have speed limits as fast as I’ve seen any drivers here going, so the question isn’t actually speed, it is speed relative to the road condition and traffic. The fastest I’ve seen any traffic flowing is 80 kph or 50 mph and the fastest I’ve seen any vehicle going (and I was sitting where I could see the speedometer clearly so am not guessing) was 90 kph or 55 mph. (that was a cross country bus I took that traveled through the night to cover a 13 hour trip. So, at night with no pedestrians or botas (the underpowered little motorcycles) or bicycles or donkey carts or hand carts or livestock grazing… 55 was only too fast for one reason: the highway was atrocious. Made with no engineering for the road bed, just asphalt laid over sand and clay soils, the road had ruts like a country lane after 3 weeks of rain. Seriously, there is an 8-10” difference between the bottom of the ruts pressed down by the weight of overloaded trucks (‘lorries’ here) and the in between parts that have been pushed up. So, when a vehicle with dual rear wheels goes down the road the back axle is inclined to try to climb out of those ruts first one way then the other which is a sensation not unlike being in a small boat in rough water. And you do remember how the disciples were praying when they were in that situation don’t you? But the daytime traffic is what really gets interesting on the highways. All of the above mentioned hazards join the buses on the highway, each going its own respective speeds, and the bus, seeking to maintain its 80 kph pace is constantly ducking around other vehicles, or blowing its 3 pitch air horns to move bicycles, botas, and slow moving things of every shape off onto the shoulder to avoid being run over. They start honking about 400 meters before overtaking them, thus giving them roughly 20 seconds to move or die. I have seen some terrified looks on the faces of people (especially ladies sitting side saddle on the back of a bota) watching this huge diesel bus (Greyhound style coach) roar, horns screaming, down upon them and pass within 1’ of them. And the bus is doing that several times every kilometer most of the day. The driver is blowing the horn, hitting the brakes, shifting, stomping on the accelerator and fiddling with his radio every minute he is driving… there is no stretch where things just get what I would consider normal.
Adding to that, the potholes are often large enough to swallow a smaller car so traffic swerves around them to the other side of the highway into oncoming traffic. I’m not sure which would be worse, swerving over into oncoming traffic trying to time dodging the pothole with oncoming gaps or slamming on your brakes and hoping the overloaded lorry behind you doesn’t smash you to smithereens when its brakes don’t work well enough.
Then, you must add to that the constant speed bumps designed to force traffic to slow to 20 kph or less every little bit. Even many of the villages or communities along the way have “installed” their own speed bumps by shoveling about a high ridge of dirt and rocks across the highway to force traffic to slow down. The jury is still out as to whether they have done this to increase safety in their communities or to stop traffic as the vendors (hawkers) gather at these aggressive speed bumps to sell their produce or drinks or cooked goods to travelers forced to come to a virtual stop.
And such is the excitement that has accompanied most of my journeys so far.
I did learn that there are buses that have good safety records and buses that don’t and this morning I was faced with a real dilemma. I had a journey to make north of Nairobi, the first leg of going to visit Stakwell Yurinemo in northern Kenya. My dilemma was that the only public transportation running this route are what are referred to a Matatus, substandard Chinese made box shaped MINIVANS outfitted with 14 seats and upon which luggage is piled as high as they can balance it. Anyone who can figure weights and balances knows that is a wreck waiting to happen, and they do happen with all too great of regularity. The drivers don’t have to be licensed (most auto drivers here have NO training or license) and they compete with the other brands for time on the runs… and the first Matatu to reach a group of people waiting on the highway gets the fares, so they are constantly speeding ahead, passing in ridiculous fashions and then slamming on their brakes to get to the side of the road to pick up someone else. They never get too full to stop for more passengers! Did you know that a 14 passenger van can actually carry over 20 with just a little minor shoving? Well, in the previous 850 kilometers I had traveled in a bus, sitting in seat 1, a large recliner right in the windshield on the other side from the driver, (the door is about 3 rows back) I had witnessed the aftermath of Matatus missing curves (probably that weight and balance thing combined with speed), smashing head on into a semi, hitting a guard rail trying to avoid a lorry; seriously 3 accidents in one day that combined must have accounted for well over 20 deaths that I saw shortly after they occurred while they were cleaning the debris from the highway. Plus, we passed several Matatu boneyards where I could witness how poorly made those things are by the little that is left after a crash. So, this is choice #1 for my trip north from Nairobi.
Choice #2 was to hire a small commercial vehicle with a licensed commercial driver that I saw advertised for $150 for the round trip. Not bad if you were splitting it 4 ways, but I was splitting it one way. The Matatu for $4 ($8 round trip) or the commercial rental for $150 round trip. Sometimes my economizing doesn’t serve me well and I was venting about this when Naftaly, my cab driver friend who has consistently met me every time my bus arrives in Nairobi or I have anywhere to go, said, “$150 round trip?” He had earlier said he could take me up there for $120-130 including gas, which I had declined. We pulled over and got out the calculator and started working on the math… taxis here don’t have meters… and he said that he would take me up to Nanyuki and return a week later for me for $150 U.S. (13,000 KES, Kenyan shillings) So, I decided I wasn’t going to put my life on the line, get packed into a sardine can and endure the 4 or 5 hours of misery it would take in the Matatu. We had a most pleasant drive, enjoyable conversation and made the trip more quickly than the Matatus would have as we simply drove without stopping every few minutes to discharge or board passengers. So, I missed the excitement, but I am writing from the comfort of my hotel room in Nanyuki with a view of Mt. Kenya to the East and Stakwell is picking me up tomorrow at about the same time my laundry will be done! I am safe, snug and rested. I suppose I could parallel the price I paid to an insurance premium; they always seem high if you don’t need the insurance, but when you need it, suddenly the expense for the premium disappears from our minds. I’ll never know whether this expenditure saved my life, but it well might have, and it certainly saved me extended hours of discomfort.
This small town is the nearest town to the trailhead to Mt. Kenya and numerous outfitters come through here daily which accounts for why I was able to buy a can of sardines, some oat crackers, a KitKat bar and a carton of Del Monte Pineapple-Passion fruit juice just to scratch an itch for something tasting familiar. My usual adventurous nature related to food when I travel got dimmed considerably after the stomach issue which debilitated me one day last week.
As an added bonus Naftaly lives near the highway we drove coming up here and he wants me to meet his wife and children on our return trip to Nairobi.
These African nations have neither the police manpower nor finances to patrol the highways and the limited speed monitoring is done by a crew of three officers in white uniforms standing on the roadside with a radar gun flagging people to stop when they are clocked exceeding the 80kph general highway limit. Instead of highway patrolmen to control the flow of traffic as we have, they generally depend upon their speed bumps which FORCE everyone to come to a virtual stop regularly so remove the possibility of running excessively fast for long distances. I guess they figure the faster you accelerate after a speed bump the harder you will have to brake for the next one. But this constant stopping plays havoc with trucks and buses and fuel economy in general.
I apologize for writing this entire letter about travel, but that seems to have been on my mind this evening. For those who want to witness some of this more closely, I did sit in the front of the bus with my video camera recording for several extended periods.
The countryside is amazingly beautiful and both yesterday and today I was impressed with the reality that the extreme poverty surrounding me everywhere is the result not of a lack of resources but of government corruption for decades. Most of the beneficial development that has been accomplished in both Kenya and Uganda was done under the rule of the British Empire and since they left, things have been going downhill. Although the electricity is sporadic and undependable once you get away from Nairobi, none that I have found has been developed or expanded since 1963 when they were made independent from Great Britain. Further, the Kenya-Uganda railway which connected all of East Africa to the ocean no longer operates other than one tourist section and the Kenyan Air Force was disbanded due to govt. conflicts. As a nation, though it has the highest GDP in East Africa, Kenya is just not advancing significantly. Each ‘county’ or district in Kenya is a semi-autonomous government ruled by a Governor, most of whom are entirely self serving and government ‘jobs’ tend to be more . The natural resources of this land are just beyond imagination, with most of the nations able to grow two full crops a year on the same land because of being located on the equator. Seasons are almost inconsequential for growing as I have seen corn (‘maize’ here) at every stage from just being planted to mid-cycle to harvesting. They are harvesting bananas, coffee beans, potatoes, tea, beans, cabbages and multiples of other crops all the time. This trip was timed perfectly to suit me, it is winter here. Of course, winter at the equator means it is in the upper 60s to low 70s each day. They have ‘winter’ twice a year and summer twice a year. Also their mineral production is not impacted by weather. This is just the ideal natural world for great economic development and there is almost none.
The future lies in rescuing and educating the next generation in these countries! And that is what Dayspring has been doing with its involvement in both Kenya and Uganda. Consider this: in ONE generation India went from being the most impoverished nation on earth to become a global economic force in the high tech and manufacturing worlds. ONE generation changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people for one country; it can be done here as well.
Jack was raised in a Christian home where he spent his youth preparing to preach God’s word. First published at thirteen, writing and speaking became Jack’s passions. Whether through newspaper columns, magazine articles, radio broadcasts or public speaking engagements, Jack continues to share his heart with his readers. His life’s motto: To Know God, and To Show Him To Others.