Roadside Kenya

This is a letter about the drive from Mt. Kenya back to Nairobi.

April 28,

Nairobi, Kenya

Dear Friends,

After rain most of Friday, Saturday Morning was gorgeous.  I got up at about 6:15 to watch the sun rise behind Mt. Kenya, and while the day stayed sunny the mountain progressively pulled its cloud shroud around its peak until about 8, while we were eating breakfast, the peak was completely gone.  By 10 we were on the road back to Nairobi.

Our first stop was the equator out on the highway where a tourist trap has grown up around “The Professor of the Equator.”  “The Professor” is famous for his demonstrations.  He has a bowel with a hole in it.  He walks 10 feet from the equator, to the north, drains the bowl through its hole into a pitcher and the match sticks in the bowel rotate clockwise as the bowl drains.  He then moves 10 meters south of the equator and does the same thing but the matchsticks turn counter clockwise.  On the equator the water drains straight down and the match sticks don’t move.  “The Professor” is demonstrating the Coriolis Effect except he has it reversed.  The movement north of the Equator is supposed to be counter clockwise and the movement south is supposed to be clockwise.  I decided not to call him on it.  (My hotel room was 75 feet north and the water rotated clockwise, it all depends on the shape of the sink and the location of the tap.)  The Professor’s act is a trick and, as I said,  I did not want to call him on it because so many people enjoy this sleight of hand, although I have known teachers to pass this misinformation on to students).  The hole in the bowl is slightly off center and after he fills it, before he removes his finger from the bottom, he makes a slight turn with his body, which sets the motion going.  The Croiolis Effect is too weak to drain water either clockwise or counter clockwise so close to the equator.  But I love this kind of huckster showmanship so tipped him but did not buy an “Official” equator certificate.  To learn more click on:

The drive back to Nairobi took 5 hours rather than the three and a half coming.  Saturday is market day and everyone was out in the markets of all the towns along the way.  Roadside stands are clumped together based on what they sell, so if you want charcoal you to between mile x and y, if you want rice, mile y and z.  There were stretches for furniture, pineapples, trout from mountain streams, and nursery supplies to name a few.  Driving slowly gave us a chance to watch the activity including troupes of  school kids, in smart uniforms, released after a half day Saturday, walking properly, facing traffic.

Public transport in rural Kenya is the bota bota,  a motorcycle that carries passengers.  This is not a motor rickshaw but a regular bike.  They can carry two or three people or a lot of merchandise, firewood, whatever,  balanced on the back seat.  Bota botas started as border running operations between Kenya and Uganda, the name is a corruption of “border to border.” “ Bota bota”  They are a low capital way for young people to enter the economy as entrepreneurs.  I had originally thought bota bota referred to the sound the bikes make.

On the ride toward Nairobi I saw a black van with flashing red rollers on it.  It said “Hearse” in old English letters and “Ambulance” in a more modern typeface.  This double duty seems very efficient.  Since the red lights were flashing I assume it was being used for the latter but I am not sure. I also like the juxtaposition of store fronts.  The Redeemed Gospel Church is attached to the King Kong shop. I have no idea what King Kong is selling.

As we approached Nairobi we entered a motorway built (or I should say being built) by the Chinese. (Herbert the driver tells us that the Chinese do things better because there is less corruption with the Chinese.)  The road has divided center lanes and an access road.  Since most traffic is on the center lanes and people cannot make much money setting up stalls on the access road, they set up in the right lane of the freeway itself.  (People drive on the left here.)  We encountered a traffic jam and found it was caused by chickens. Someone selling live chickens in the left lane.  Later it was clothing.  The freeway became  kind of a flea market.  Matatus (minibuses licensed to carry 14 people, the urban version of the bota bota,) stop on the motorway and let out people, usually in the right lane, which means riders alight into the traffic flow.  The law limits Matatus to 14 passengers but Suzi counted 21 on one Matatu,  Some were kids so perhaps they don’t count as full souls. This whole process somehow seems to defeat the purpose of the motorway, especially when someone makes a u turn and heads into traffic in order to go back and find a bargain.

Most matatus have names with religious overtones.  On the way into Nairobi I saw “Blessed Assurance,” “In God we Trust,” “Thanks God, let the glory be to you” painted on the sides of matatus.

Once off the freeway we are in Nairobi, where on Saturday many traffic circles becomes markets.  Instead of squeegee men approaching stopped cars you can get just about anything.  The traffic seems to have no rules, people and cars mingle and cars go in every direction, so you could find yourself face to face with another Toyota.  The spring rains bring potholes and car wheels find them, so when the traffic starts to move the driver guns the car to get the wheel out just of the hole as a pedestrian steps in front of the car.  At the same time the car in front releases its clutch so while our car lurches forward the car in front rolls backward, with a pedestrian or six in the space between them.  It is heart stopping but we made it through without hitting anyone.  Vehicles seem to stop for no apparent reason.  Perhaps to wait for someone; in a middle lane!  Jon says Cairo is worse, but this is more unpredictable.

We made it back to the hotel just as our sunny weather ran out.  I’m  typing this looking out at the rain.  Tomorrow morning is early, a 5:30 pickup for the airport to go to Zanzibar.

Take Care,

Rich McClear.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.