Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Grassroots Traffic Tales

So I was in the village in December and much has been said about the Probox.

I have seen many Proboxes over the last few months, but I never saw one that needed panel beating. They are always spick and span with hardly a dent on them. That could be a sign of superior engineering. Or it could mean that there are only two extremes for the Probox in an accident: either the scrapyard, or no accident at all. There is no alternative.

You wouldn't think from analyzing the award-losing shape of the Probox that it was designed with any heavy duty purpose in mind. It is known to have all the toughness of an egg shell. Still, Kenya's entrepreneurial class has done away with these scruples and now, on rural routes in Western Kenya, the Probox is a fourteen-seater public service vehicle. Yes, having five seatbelts and five seats TOTAL. A passenger who squeezes in the boot of a Probox can negotiate ten bob off his or her fare. Twenty bob if they add a few live goats in the midst of all seven of you back there. Then at long last the driver, who happens to be sharing his seat, takes off, his entire right arm outside the window up to his shoulder. He happens to work a gear stick which emerges from between someone's legs. Not exactly the glamour shot for maneuverability. Looking at such a Probox from outside, though, one sees only its perfect square lines and box shape, and you'd never think from the sight of one that there would be thirty corpses from the highway conjugation of two such Proboxes.

Meanwhile, a profusion of motorbikes on roads is such that fatal accidents happen every which way. It doesn't help that the motorbike riders react to the deaths of their compatriots by tearing down the roads in rowdy bands, shrill whistles clamped in their jaws, every one of them in the wrong lane trying to be Renegade on a KES30,000.00 budget contraption called "PENG". Not "Harley-Davidson". And then there's frequently the burning and lynching of crooks associated with the trade, coz PENGs seem to have high demand enough to kill for, or strand and rob passengers with. So apparently perpetrating a bodaboda business and earning income therein does not do much to dispel alcoholism, violent conduct and rough language.

As for the legally-fourteen-seater vans, those never lack that legion of young men which hangs at the door, heads bent inward. The ones who make a van lean to one side as their shirts wave like flags in the wind. The tout is usually the one who bribes the cops at so-called "traffic checks". His nightmares mainly involve Michuki Rules and presidential crackdowns.

Traffic cops are another matter altogether. Always potbellied and standing in the sun all day, you would think potbellies would shrivel under such harsh working conditions, but no. Anyway, one of them has taken to enlivening his dreary day as he waits for overcrowded Nissan vans to come his way. And not only by accepting bribes does his attitude towards life improve. Using his truncheon, he whips the butts of these hanging young men as they move past him, at a time when their hands are holding on for dear life. Admittedly, many cops look unfit and ponderous and overweight with their potbellies and all, but one need only experience their forearms to confess that COPS ARE STRONG. Such intense pleasure does he derive from seeing his victims struggle to maintain their grip after THAT ONE. Usually they just cry out and wincingly exclaim through gritted teeth to other occupants of the van that the fat cop has walloped them. His victims must rely on the breeze to palliate the hurt, seeing as they can't just release their grip on the matatu to rub their posteriors. And if anyone falls off the van because he let go his grip for the urgent necessity of rubbing his rear, the cop outright laughs in triumph, truncheon raised. Wicked man.

Seriously if only Kenya's traffic policymakers recognized the reality in the grassroots, that people will travel, no matter the challenges presented by low supply and high demand.

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