Watching the Wheels Turn

Nairobi: Watching the Wheels Turn


To cut a long story short, Nairobi has major transport issues.  With a population approaching four million, it is East Africa’s major centre for commerce, through which 67% of Kenya’s GDP is channelled.  For anyone working in the Central Business District, getting to work can take three hours of sitting in traffic jams; there is no significant ring road; planning is chaotic at best; and road fatalities in some areas are 1 per day.  The main artery for cargo for Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Congo passes directly through the centre of town, through several junctions at which no-one obeys the lights; and where red and green are offered at the same time.  The economic clock ticks away whilst Nairobi’s workers wait in traffic queues, whilst the poorest are limited to work that can be found within considerable walking distances.

Our job is to make sense of this, and to provide a plan of action for Nairobi’s politicians and donors.  It’s a new way of working for me – we are consultants whose tool is the pen and not the project.  And this is a hard line to tow – Nairobi has waited too long for some a solution.  There are many donors willing to throw money at Nairobi’s traffic jams, and many engineers, Kenyan, Chinese, Japanese and European alike, chomping at the bit for interesting highways construction projects.

Here, London’s lesson is an interesting one.  Thatcher famously proposed turning the M25 into a ten-lane superhighway.  Instead, TfL was formed and money spent on public transport, and London has been transformed.  In Nairobi, roads are being built, but new roads are filled quicker than they can be built, whilst public transport use has dropped from 30% of all trips to just 4%.  Simple arithmetic tells us we must focus on public transport: one bus, 50 passengers, takes the roadspace of 6 matatus (minibuses) or 50 private cars.  The railways did not fare much better in Moi’s Kenya: a railway line through Kibera (the ‘Lunatic Line’ of 1903 which lost 2500 workers during construction) offers huge potential for slum dwellers, but there is now one passenger train a day and a lack of operational stations. I am meeting with Kenya Railways next week – hoping to dissect real progress from aspiration.

And to implement any sort of functioning public transport system: a realistic economic service model will need to persuade operators to invest; engineering projects will need to incorporate facilities for public transport and non-motorised users; the considerably powerful matatu lobby (owned by politicians and criminal gangs) will need to be offered viable alternatives; and traffic enforcement (and police corruption) will need to be addressed. The engineering is the easy part, but it is political will that will give Nairobi a transport system.  There is a long road of institutional reform and capacity building ahead – such was the loss of capacity in the 1990s that there is very little experience in the management of formal public transport systems.

I enjoy finding my stereotypes challenged – and my red education has led me to be suspicious of the World Bank, with its culpability in the structural adjustment legacy for Africa. The jury is still out, but first impressions suggest that this is no longer the World Bank that crushed African state infrastructure in the 1980s: in the transport sector, they talk the language of institutional capacity building, of patience and investment for long term growth; and of operational and maintenance considerations.  They were quick to advise the early engagement of the matatu drivers, and to suggest they be provided formal training and jobs as bus drivers, and brought to the table considerable wisdom and experience of bringing order out of similar chaos in other cities from Accra to Sao Paulo. Conspicuously absent from the table were the Chinese, who, it seems, build the roads they want and have little interest in wider coordination/planning.  And through JICA, Japan have impressed – strong on engagement, welcoming offices, and they have got further than anyone else in producing, with the Kenyan government, a comprehensive urban masterplan for Nairobi.

However, as promised: away from Kenya’s troubles and politics, is where many foreigners and locals alike seem to find their peace – in the country’s outstanding natural beauty.  Our morning began watching the clouds burn off the Great Rift Valley – a landscape of a scale that cannot fail to take your breath away.  The vastness is accompanied by the weight of history, and our conversation swung from the branches around the half-ape, half human Australopithecus who first came down from the trees four million years ago.

Deeper into the Great Rift and we continued our pilgrimage to Hell’s Gate, a tightly carved gorge into the belly of the world, where hot water pours from the sandstone seams, and whose name comes from the legend of the Maasai village destroyed by its devastating flash floods.  The morning rains didn’t change my expectations of a gloomy boat trip and a three headed-dog – but, who would guess that you can cycle up to the gates of Hell.  And, instead of Cerberus, Hell is guarded by giraffes, buffalo, impala, gazelle, baboons, hyraxes, and herds of zebra – our brave peloton was impeded only, as one might expect on a Sunday ride back home, by zebra crossings.

Winding through the sinuous intestines of Africa’s underbelly, and you are spat out, blinking and dazed in the sunlight, before climbing, up and up through the purgatory of dust and acacia thorns, to your place in heaven:  a high rocky perch at the right hand of God, where Simba himself must have roared, looking down on this paradisical kingdom.

Mildly disappointed by the no-show of pearly gates and justice scales, the journey home made it clear that there was still a biblical message to impart: the scene of a small herd of goats forming a local council under a dusty rock outcrop left me awaiting a bearded Michael Palin to leap out yelling about juniper berries.   ‘Enough’, I thought, ‘let me turn back to the world we inhabit’, and struck up a conversation with our guide, a kindly engineering student who enjoyed his weekend work in the hills.   His name turned out to be Jehovah.

Finally, we took a much needed meal on the shores of Lake Naivasha.  But this is no ordinary location.  We ate with the Colobus monkeys playing in the purple trees above us, and strolled through the lagoons on the lake shore, amongst the water bucks, ibis, egrets and pelicans.  It is no wonder George and Joy Adamson made their home here – beauty so rich that I could even be found humming the Born Free jingle.