In Kenya, drive prayerfully Danger: "You just go with God," says a bus driver who plies the wretched roads of Africa, where "kill or be killed" seems to apply equally to the jungle and the motorways.

Sun Journal

June 12, 1996|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NAIROBI-KISUMU ROAD, Kenya -- More than most in Kenya, Evans Mbugua risks his sanity, and his life, every day.

Mbugua's job is to drive eight passengers crammed into a Peugeot station wagon from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to a city in the country's west, Kisumu, about 250 miles away.

In other countries, such a trip might be a time for meditation or good conversation; in Kenya, driving long distances is a task that requires paying absolute attention to the road, where just about anything is likely to happen.

Take a recent trip from Nairobi to Kisumu. First, Mbugua encountered foot-deep potholes in the middle of the highway. At 70 mph, he dodged them, one after the other, to avoid cracking an axle.

The next obstacle was a line of diesel-belching trucks crawling up a hill. The diesel smoke was so thick it obscured the roadway. Still, he tried to pass, only to find a truck was already in the passing lane, trying to overtake another truck at roughly 10 mph. Mbugua waited for a better opportunity.

Clear of the trucks and regaining his 70 mph pace, Mbugua was face to face with a minivan -- in his lane -- in the process of passing a line of cars. Unrepentant, the other driver honked his horn and flashed his lights at Mbugua, who obliged by swerving to the side.

A collision avoided, but his motoring challenges for the day were not over. Nearing Kisumu, he turned a corner and began careening down a hill. A dangerous move, if only because a light drizzle had coated the curvy road, but one made all the worse by a car stopped at the bottom of the hill -- in Mbugua's lane, of course.

He slammed on his brakes, skid to a near halt, and then slowly drove around the other car. Seeing a driver inside, Mbugua threw up his arms in frustration. The other driver seemed to have forgotten where he was. He looked around his vehicle, somewhat perplexed, and then barked: "What?" As in, What's your problem?

Welcome to the roads of Kenya.

"You just go with God," said James Kiarien, a bus driver who braves the Nairobi-Kisumu road at least once a day.

But sometimes going with God is not enough to prevent deadly accidents. Last year, 2,700 people were killed here, many of them riding in the kind of bus driven by Kiarien.

Only last month, a bus carrying dozens of passengers from Mombasa, on Kenya's coast, to Nairobi flipped over and rolled. Eight people died, including a woman who was to marry four days later.

That week was rather typical for Kenya: 36 people died in auto accidents. Pedestrians were hit and killed. Two-car accidents claimed lives. And 11 people on their way to a funeral were killed when their truck rolled over.

Kenya's rate of road deaths per vehicle -- 500 per 100,000 -- is one of the highest in the world, said Dr. M. K. Adalja, the chairman of the Automobile Association of Kenya's Road Safety Committee. He said the country, which has a per capita income of about $300, loses close to $60 million a year because of road accidents.

Deadly travel is not restricted to roads in East Africa. On May 21, a ferry carrying an estimated 1,000 people capsized on Lake Victoria near a port town in neighboring Tanzania. More than 500 people died, even though the ferry was licensed to carry only 433.

Overcrowding also is blamed for Kenya's high rate of road deaths. But there are plenty of other reasons for the country's poor driving record.

Dr. Adalja's list alone could fill a book. Kenyan drivers lack courtesy, he said; they drive drunk; police are corrupt; roads are poorly maintained; vehicles are extremely old; the government is not serious about improving road safety; and other factors.

Ask anyone who drives for a living in Nairobi about these points, and they all are likely to agree on one: Police are not much of a threat.

Police are widely credited with being more concerned with cash than with road safety. If a traffic policeman stops a driver, the latter needs only to pay a few-dollar bribe to continue on his way.

One consequence is that the laws ostensibly governing Kenya's roads -- speed limits, not driving on sidewalks, not passing blindly at the top of a hill, not overcrowding buses -- are simply ignored. Cars older than their drivers are driven without working brake lights and turn signals.

"Drivers should be whipped," said the director of one of Kenya's largest driving schools. "That's the only way to discipline. You have to cause pain because now people just pay money and go on."

Earlier this year, the Kenyan government put forward a tamer solution. Government officials said that public service vehicles -- taxis, buses, minivans and minibuses, called matatus -- should be fitted with expensive "black boxes." The idea was that the boxes would record a vehicle's speed in a computer, which could be checked by police.

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