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Julie Nkirote, DGM

Staying safe and happy on Kenyan roads; By Julie Nkirote, DGM,

A couple of years back a seminar speaker flew into Kenya, giddy with excitement at the prospect of a safari and the African experience after his conference. And the true Kenyan experience began as soon as he settled in the Taxi, with the driver giving him his best toothy grin reserved for tourists, as he mustered all the English required to last their drive to the city centre. As was the case in the days before Uber, this driver was happy to have landed a Mzungu, and he was keen to impress as it would mean well-paying assured business the rest of the week.  This means that he was on his best behaviour, right?

Anyway, they hit the road after the usual “Jambo”, Karibu Kenya” “Asante” drill. I always wonder why we struggle with the Hakuna Matata vibe, but anyway, we are Kenyans, and Matata is our business. Now, what amazed and confused the Mzungu is that the driver donned the “sura ya kazi” aura, as he zigzagged on Mombasa Road, honking and cursing and jostling for space with trailers and buses and literally shoving everyone out of the way, because which cab driver keeps his distinguished just-landed-in-Kenya-for-the-first-time Mgeni on the road for hours. And to top it all, the banter never died off; the Taxi driver expertly balanced entertainment and speed – as his guest closed his eyes hoping to get to his hotel unscathed by this turbulent ride. And survive he did, summing up his experience by stating that Kenyan’s are great people, until they get behind the wheel and hit the road.

So what is it about driving in Nairobi that is so exciting? Easy, just observe these rules that they don’t teach you in driving school.

First off, any car that is bigger than the one you are driving has right of way. Don’t even try to rationalize that Kenya is a right-hand drive nation.  Just move over, with humility, don’t argue with me. Slow down, watch their cue and if their ego isn’t as big as their vehicle, they will hand you your right of way. Then move, and move fast. This rule also applies if you encounter a Matatu, regardless of the size of your car. Just stop. Unless you fancy huge inconveniences in your life.

Now, if the vehicle in question is way bigger, say a Citi-hoppa or KBS or a water bowser, garbage truck or exhauster or nganyas – what are you even doing on the road? If you could disappear altogether, it would be better for these road users. Okay I exaggerate, but that should not in any way make you feel courageous to also any of these beasts. Just take a deep breath, hit your brakes, give way and you will be on your way.

Now, if you encounter a trailer, especially if you plan to overtake, you need to do some quick math – analyse your speed, their velocity, width of the road, take into account any bends or irregularities, how steady the trailer driver’s hands appear to be, and also how much you love your life. Then summon your courage to speed past the 10-tonne monster, while keeping your distance to ensure that it doesn’t lick your car as this could send you spiraling to the afterlife.

Second rule is, pro-boxes and pick-ups also enjoy the luxury of right of way. Especially pro-boxes. They will either be ferrying perishable cargo, or be rushing off to a business deal somewhere, and money waits for no man. So just give way, and if on the superhighway, maintain one lane between yourself and this hardy, speeding boxes as their manoeuvres are quite unpredictable. Did I mention that they will ‘scratch’ you and speed off like a nonsense?

Third rule is that you should your breath in the presence of boda bodas. Now, all that needs to be said about this category of road users can only be done trough a demo, because some scenes are indescribable with words – you would need to see to understand and believe. They will zoom past you, zig-zag through your vehicle, fly over you and under you, get lodged beneath you, get trapped in your spare wheel, sit in your boot or windscreen. The possibilities are endless. 


Now, the aftermath is the scariest part. You will get ambushed by a gang of motorbike riders who appear miraculously, and they could whip you, stone you or torch your vehicle altogether. And then then they will all board your car so that you take their injured colleague to hospital. The only upside to this is that you will get an escort motorcade to get you to hospital quick.

The last rule applies for road users with sirens, hazard lights, hooting, twigs or tree branches, people hanging and singing, and generally vehicles with any form of noise or lights. Don’t even second guess your judgement here. Just squeeze your car to the furthest left side of the road, and sing as you wait for the mayhem or emergency to clear. Because this could be a VIP or an ambulance or aggrieved football fans, or anything in between. And whoever they are, they get priority treatment on the road.

Lastly, when you find traffic policemen on a roundabout and the traffic lights appear to be working, this should not be a dilemma. Always watch the policeman. Look then straight in the eye before you make your move.

Because if you decide to move because the light is green, it will turn out that the cop was controlling traffic, and if you decide to stop because the light turned red, you will be insulted for being a stupid driver who isn’t following the policeman’s direction, and if you stop when the light is green, the policeman will gesture at you pointing at his head because yours is empty and if you move when the light is red because you thought the cop motioned for you to move – well, see you in court for dangerous driving. See, it’s complicated. Just look the policeman in the eye and you will survive this predicament.

Drive safe, stay happy!