Ideas & Debate

Sights and sounds of Kampala traffic

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Reflection of a traffic jam in a side-view mirror. FILE PHOTO | NMG

I was recently invited to give a keynote speech at beautifully orchestrated event in Kampala. The event was slated to start at 4 pm on a balmy Saturday afternoon in one of the premier hotels in Kampala’s central business district.

Now if you have ever visited Kampala on any given day, you will have noticed that their traffic makes Nairobi’s semi-permanent gridlock look like child’s play. Saturday is no exception. We had booked my flights on the assumption that all factors would remain constant and the function would start on time which would enable me to catch the evening flight at 21:30 back to Nairobi.

Well, fate threw a monkey wrench and the function started late. Depending on which side of Google your question lands on, the distance between Kampala and Entebbe, where the airport is located, is anywhere between 32 and 43 kilometres. But that’s neither here nor there.

The more important factor is that it can take anything from 50 minutes on a sun-kissed day to two hours when the gods have forsaken you in the viscous traffic trying to get out of Kampala’s central business district. The event organisers were thinking ten steps ahead and by the time I had finished my talk, a police patrol car was waiting to provide an escort to Entebbe. So first I stopped dead in my tracks: a police patrol car? Me? How?! The chairman of the event was extremely relaxed about it, like this happened all the time. “They will clear the path for you to Entebbe, you’ll be there in no time.”

Now you must understand that the Kenyan in me only saw serikali (government)whenever a police escort showed up in the streets. These sorts of things were reserved for the political elite. So I shrank into the corner of my seat and watched the weather beaten dark blue Toyota, with a loosely perched siren on its roof, pierce its way through traffic cutting open a path that my cab driver, who was closely following behind, blazed through with unbridled relish. Thirty-five hair raising minutes later, we were at the airport. But this is what amazed me: Ugandan drivers respect authority. Every inch that the police escort negotiated in between lanes and off the road at times was done with the full knowledge that the drivers ahead and beside the escort would fall away and create a Red Sea parting that would make Moses proud.

The reason I write this story is precisely because of the realisation that the Nairobi driver has become cynical and immune to sirens, flags and the chest thumping tactics that many government vehicles use to sweep their way through Nairobi.

Overlapping traffic

I’ve witnessed on several occasions the ubiquitous Subaru lead car overlapping traffic with a scrawny hand thrust out on both sides of the back seat windows pointing a walkie talkie at drivers in a bid to make them fall to the side and allow the flag bearing Toyota Landcruiser or Volkswagen Passat to shimmy past.

Sometimes the slack wrist pointing a purported symbol of authority, in the form of a walkie talkie, is effective. Most times, in my observation, it is not. Which has made pause quite often in wonderment.

When did we Kenyans become so blasé about authority? We see the symbols of power, shrug our shoulders and press on in the debilitating traffic, muttering to ourselves about how our own time is just as important as this officious government official who should have woken up half an hour earlier if he wanted to avoid traffic. I’ve seen an old gentleman calmly whip out a newspaper to read when confronted by an overlapping government chase car that is trying to force him off the road. I’ve seen drivers stick their heads out of the window and yell that they are also in a hurry, so people just need to get in line.

Is it our well entrenched Kenyan freedom of expression that has gotten us here or is it the fact that we have collectively reached a mixture of exasperation, disillusionment and repugnance for the symbols of power demonstrated by the political elite? When we, as a Kenyan people, are able to look authority in the eye and say you are not more important than me, we have arrived at a significant notch in the development belt. What we do with that emerging power is what will define our next decade of demanding accountability for our tax payments.