MY MAGIC MOMENT
I am convinced that what Chinua Achebe once said of Nigerian drivers is equally true of Kenyan drivers – they rank among the most creative in the world. What they lack in road courtesy they more than make up for in creativity: they accelerate on approaching a zebra crossing; they signal “right” when turning “left”; they overtake on either side of the road; they drive at a speed of one hundred and forty kilometres an hour in a heavy downpour with zero visibility; matatus pick up fares any and everywhere …
Perhaps it is simply a case of drivers adjusting their dispositions to suit the road conditions, for Kenyan roads are among the worst in the world: an uneven stretch of black tar so narrow that two cars cannot use it at the same time; pot-holes large enough to swallow the car; officers in uniform who are far more interested in collecting “kitu kidogo” than in enforcing law and order (oh yes, even in the post-NARC, post-Michuki era!); and fellow road users who behave as if even the concept of a road, let alone courtesy on it, is completely alien to them.
The only thing that can possibly be worse than ‘navigating’ Kenyan roads is crossing them, and many a lives have been lost in the process. Surviving is an art, which those of us who grow up and live in such circumstances have perfected to a reflex reaction.
Ironically, it is this acquired reflex which nearly got me killed on the streets of Ottawa one bright morning. Having looked “right, then left, then right again,” I stepped into the road …
Too late, I remembered that the rule of the road in Canada is “keep right”. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. The car came to a smooth, quiet halt, just inches from my feet. I stood as if rooted to the ground, seeing in the mirror of my imagination the horror of my mutilated body on the tarmac.
Slowly, I raised my head and looked furtively at the driver, knowing in advance what I would see and hear: hate and anger in the eyes, wild gesticulations with the hands, unprintable obscenities from the mouth …
To my complete surprise, my eyes encountered a smiling face, and a gentle wave to proceed and cross the road. Several other motorists had also stopped, almost in military precision, on both sides of the road, forming an unmarked zebra crossing for me. All of them slowing down and stopping without fanfare: faces calm, eyes kind and alert.
Slowly, I let out my breath, and crossed to the safety of the other side, awed by the miracle of still being alive.
For me, it was, and forever will remain, a magic moment.
© Esther Mbithi 2004
Submitted to the BBC and aired on the Network Africa radio programme of 18th May 2004.