Walking home from work the other day I passed very close to the road construction on Wayaki Way. The old, worn road had been grazed and the workers were shoveling hot, new tarmac onto the road from the back of a truck. I had to squint and hold my breath as I passed for those few seconds, yet the two guys shoveling had zero special equipment (other than shovels)—no eye gear, work boots, gloves or masks! All this got me thinking about the common mwananchi (roughly “citizen” in Swahili), and how stuff like this is probably typical.
Being white in Nairobi is mostly harmless and can be pretty funny, but being white in Tala is annoying. There are a few things that really annoy me about being non-black in Tala. It’s not that Tala is particularly a bad place; I assume you’d have the same experience if you traveled to a rural area in any country. If you stand out like a sore thumb you’re bound to attract attention (good and bad).
First, people feel so sweet when they’re with their buddies (see: Herd Behavior). They’ll say things when they’re in a group that they’d never say if they were alone. I’m used to that by now, so my heart always starts racing when I see a group of teenagers approaching. It seems like they always have to say as they pass, and it’s usually something provocative (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). Go live somewhere where you are different and see how it feels to walk the streets day in and day out by yourself.
Second, some people just never get used to me. For example: the girls at Tala Girls high school. The college’s compound is fenced, and I usually enter through a gate near the high school’s perimeter. The girls usually see me leaving my house through that gate and I’m used to the silly things they say (you know high school girls). I am surprised every once in a while, like last weekend some girls shouted, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” Uhh… these girls are in high school. Have they never seen a white person before? I’m not even sure that’s an excuse, because I’ve lived here for close to TWO YEARS.
Depending on my mood, these range from really pissing me off to being just slightly annoying.
The Tala-Kangundo highway from Nairobi is terrible. It seems as if the road is in a constant state of decline. I find myself often commenting to strangers, “Hii bara bara ni mbaya sana” (“this road is very bad”), it’s a great ice breaker. We laugh and speculate about whether someone will tengeneza (“repair”) it any time soon, and then my Swahili vocabulary is just about extinguished. Side note: it’s hard to be funny when using a language which you have only mastered up to the level of the local toddler.
Certain sections of the road are worse than others. One spot in particular, between Kantafu and Koma Hill, is pretty consistently hideous. I was returning to Tala today and noticed a throng of young men with shovels crowding around one of the rough areas just before Koma Hill. As we got closer I saw them start jumping and shouting. I heard the driver yell something about kumi (“ten”) to the conductor, who then stuck his head out the window, presumably to toss the boys a ten shilling coin (ten shillings can buy a cup of tea, and for reference, we pay 100-150 shillings fare from Nairobi to Tala). The driver then commented, “Wamefanya vizuri” (“they’ve done it well”). It’s true, the pot holes had been filled in with sand and rocks and leveled out, making that section much more pleasant, at least for a little while. The pay is far from flattering, but those dudes on the road side are entrepreneurs; they alone are responsible for the few “repairs” I’ve ever seen made to that road in the two years I’ve lived in Tala.
It’s kinda ridiculous that those youths scooping sand and rocks from the road side constitutes road repair. I’ve never seen any official work being done on that road. I guess it’s not so bad compared to other major roads I’ve traveled in Kenya, though. Western Kenya, terrible. Kajiado-Namanga, terrible. Kangundo-Machakos, terrible. Tala-Thika, terrible. Northern Kenya, what road? I always wonder, “It’s not like Kenya is poor, why doesn’t the government fix these roads?” There is a lot of money in Kenya but it’s apparently in the hands of the wrong people (the government, ironically. See my post on the Kings of Kenya).
Also ironic, the roads in Central province are pretty sweet. President Kibaki comes from there… coincidence or conspiracy?