Driving (or even just being a passenger) in a motor vehicle is generally a harrowing experience in Kenya. A multitude of reasons contribute to this and I think it would be useful if you knew of the dangers before jumping on the road and assuming that driving here is like in any other country.
Rules of the Road
Firstly and most importantly, it is critical to be ware of the rules of the road. Unlike conventional countries that have a tome of laws and restrictions including unnecessary little extras such as working break lights etc., it is important to be aware that there are only two rules of the road here.
Rule No. 1: Don’t kill anyone.
Rule No. 2: Don’t be killed.
Other than that, all else goes. You will be hard pressed to find police looking for offenders of any sort. Their primary role it seems is to TRY control the overflow of traffic at peak times. Don’t feel like indicating when turning a corner? No problem. Don’t feel like wearing a seat belt? Thats your prerogative. The most annoying (and dangerous) dis-regard for road rules is the lack of headlights on many matatus making them neigh on invisible at night. If you don’t see them, well, that’s your problem and you can expect to pay for any damages or possibly serve a little jail time. And that leads us onto the next section.
The cheap local public transport of choice and the bane of the road. They serve a vital purpose in keeping the country running by making sure its patrons gets to where they need to in decent time. If only they could perform this duty like normal human beings.
One of the reasons that matatu drivers are so dangerous is because for the most part, they are hyped up on drugs. There is a local drug grown around here called Mirra (which is a form of Khat) and it produces a similar effect to downing 20 espressos. This makes the drivers more erratic and prone to taking risks. The police could help solve some of these problems by intervening , however a lot of the matatus are actually owned by police men and therefore exist ‘above’ the law (the second real problem). The matatu owners demand high payment from the drivers with anything left over going to the driver. This forces the drivers to race from A to B as quickly as possible in order to make as much money as possible so that they might end up with something to take away. Quite a sad state of affairs.
Ahh potholes. You gotta learn to love them else you may find yourself checking into your local mental asylum. Virtually every road is littered with them forcing a maximum speed limit of 40 km/h (unless you wish to bend an axle). Once in a while there is an initiative to re-tar the road but due to cheaping out, only a thin layer of tar is laid down to ‘hide’ the current holes and come the next batch of rains, its long gone washed away.
There once was a classic photo in a Kenyan newspaper wonderfully portraying the extent of the potholes (I tried to find a copy of it but alas, was no use). An entire truck (of the lorry variety) disappeared into a water filler pothole in the middle of Mombasa town! It was such an event that it made front news in the local paper. In sure that article turned a head or two! Regardless, when you want to go cruising around, make sure you’re sitting comfortably within a 4×4 if you can. The higher you are off the road, the better.
No Road Signs or Traffic Lights
Since there are no real rules to the road, its clearly understandable that road signs and traffic lights are not required. I am yet to see a road sign specifying a speed limit of any sort. Once in a while you will come across a matatu or bus parked in front of a ‘No Parking’ sign or a ‘Stop’ sign wedged half way up someones car bonnet but that’s about it really.
To be fair, there are about three traffic lights dotted about the island. It could help ease the chaos known as traffic if they actually worked but its the thought that counts isn’t it.
I in no way support the prospect of drinking and driving in any way and it is your responsibility as an adult to keep yourself and others around out of harms way by not being reckless. That said, drunk driving is a standard affair.
There is really one one club around (called Il Covo) and its a decent drive north of Mombasa. Taxis will try extort money out of you at night by charging 4x the standard amount and the other forms of transport ‘go to sleep’. This leaves no other option than getting yourself home no matter what state you are in. Due to the obvious lack of policing, one can be 98% certain that the trip home will go down without a hitch (granted you don’t wrap yourself around a tree – I see an accident almost time down that road). Be extra vigilant at night. You never know if the guy driving towards you at 120km/h knows what he’s doing.
The Silver Lining
Of course, it’s not all bad! Every cloud has a silver lining and that holds true in this instance as well. If you manage to traverse the wonderful roads and its ever present dangers, you have proven yourself as the most competent of drivers and should be able to navigate any other country (or planet for that matter) without and problems! :P
If you have interesting travel experiences, please do share it with me here :)