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This Blog used to be about the question: What is Science?
Now, it asks: What is Happiness?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Kenyan Corollas

I thought I could get away with having a cell phone without a camera. But recent events in Nairobi have made it clear that I need to upgrade to the Nokia E61i. 'i' standing for 'imaging capability'.
Otherwise, the E61 that has been my faithful techno-companion for the last year is perfect - global internet, cheap calls, wi-fi, Skype, music, movies, Excel, Powerpoint, Word, GPS, the list is endless.
However, where it fell short by having no camera was on, having no pictures because of lack of proper camera and unwillingness to drag a R24000 HiDef video around I am now asking you to....

....Picture the Scene.

Nairobi. River Road.

For those not in the know, River Road is the dark and lengthy equivalent of Warwick Triangle in Durban, South Africa. Or maybe some of the more illustrious parts of Hillbrow in Joburg (SA). The main difference is that River Rd is perported to be dangerous after dark, whereas the equivalent SA experiences are dangerous anytime.
Notwithstanding, this is a foreign place for pale skinned me and I have been regaled with tales of horrendous adventures down River Road by equally pale skinned males inextricably attached to competitive and focussed NGO women of note.
(Come on! You've got to have some risk in life!)
(Author's note: If you are unable or unwilling to take the River Rd safari there is a great book by local writer 'Mwangi' called 'Going down River Road'. It is only available at Savani's Bookshop at the new and very upmarket Nakormatt Westgate Mall. where you can enjoy up and down escalators and the finest capucchino outside 'Dormans'.)
Anyway, back to reality.
After 6 months of delaying my return to Nairobi through the endless endgame that comes with fine film making back home in SA, I returned to my emotional home of 82 Kyuna Crescent, Westlands, Nairobi.
Ida is well pleased at my being back as she has been soldiering on here, all alone with nothing between her and the wild Savanah but a huge veggie garden, big raptors, the occasional monkey and three delightful girl animals, Kinky, Mandu and Tuscany.
Then there is Steve, 'Wunder-gardener and house man', who is even more delighted at my return because it means leave for him, at last.

Steve works weekdays here at Kyuna crescent, having been one of the main reasons we chose this piece of Kenya to dwell in. He was the Askari (guard) here whilst the property was empty. In his spare time he created and nurtured a huge vegetable garden in the bottom third of the property.
It was natural for us to request of the Owner, Mr Patel, a local steel industrialist, that Steven should remain under our employ as we were fully aware of the benefits of a talented gardener and the nutritious products of his labour. Mr Patel would hear none of it as 'Steven is one of my best workers.'
However, after some strategizing and offer making we realized that our South African normality of paying decent wages to working folk would finally persuade Steven to opt for a green-fingered future and ... us.
An income of R600/mth ($80) is average for a 6 day week in Kenya. This is illegal in South Africa and indeed was even in the darkest days of Apartheid. It's something called 'minimum wages'.
Thus it was that Steven graduated from being a Kenyan 'house boy' (as is local useage) to being a trustworthy and self-managing man of many talents at the Smith-Jooste residence in Kyuna Crescent, Nairobi.To start off we would peep out of the bedroom curtains and watch him at work in his garden, seemingly oblivious to the fact of new management. Then the 'greens' started appearing at the kitchen door, chopped up Skuma-weeky. So called because this local spinach variety grows on the side of the road with voluminous abandon and the saying goes that if you are hungry before the end of the problem...skuma weeky shortens the week.This somehow grew to Steve preparing basic meals for Ida when she worked late and now with some culinary direction from memsahib Ida, Steven has blossomed into a Courdon-bleu chef of note, complete with monthly subscription to a local gourmet recipe magazine. Seems like the lad has found his true calling.
So, Steve, a few weeks back is peddling his ubiquitous black 'Hero' bicycle back to his house in the Eastern part of the city when wham! he is knocked down by a Mutatu. (local minibus taxi driven mostly on the pavement and somewhat excessively).
Steve is ok, but the bike not.

So, I get back to Nairobi and Steve starts to arrange his annual leave. Being a liberated man, it is clear to him that now that Bwana Smith is here, Memsahib Ida has a cook and bottlewasher.
For the last week before he heads off to Kisiiland to see his parents, his wife and two young kids come and stay at Kyuna. Ida and I are feeling ebulient about Life in general and hugely appreciative of Stevens' general bonhomie. So, we tell Steve that we are going to get his bike fixed or ... maybe..get a new one. The huge toothy smile that greets the second option seals the deal and I suggest he takes me to a bike shop en route to the bus station on the morrow. We all agree that Nakormatt (close, smart supermarket) will be much more expensive than the (how much Steve?) 6000 Shilling price at his shop.
Early bells and Ida and I emerge to a Toyota Corolla laden with suitcases, family, striped shopping bags, water bottles, and a very eruditely turned out Steven, all ready to hit the road.
By the time I discover where Steve's bike shop is, we are already in River Road. Mistake number one. Never ask motoring advice from someone who has never driven or owned a car. River Road traffic is akin to the greater unwashed of the world being dumped into the traffic around the Arc de Triomf. Fortunately Kenyan Corollas have a nifty button that pulls the wing mirrors into the body so I manage to narrow our footprint as I try to imagine how I am to find parking and then load a bicycle into the car.
That's when it happened. Wisps of steam coming from the bonnet. I see something half way up the windshield - it is the heat gauge needle. I hit a left, onto a lucky flat bit of pavement and go into automative survival mode. It's been a long time since this happened....but it's all coming back to me...don't open the radiator cap - it will explode. Do open the cap, else the radiator bursts. The three Mutatus behind me are hooting now - I have stopped on the taxi access ramp. Back in the car, start it and park it up on the pavement. Makes no difference to the pedestrians as they walk in the road anyway.
Somehow between my Masaai blanket and the vicegrips that I carry everywhere I go I gently ease off the steam pressure and persuade Mrs Steve, who by now has, kids and all, exited the car, to give up a bottle of their drinking water. The proper way I recall, is to run the engine while slowly pouring in the cold water. What I don't know is that Kenyan Corollas lock themselves when you start them and close the doors.
Ohoh! The doors lock, the radiator cap is gripped in the teeth of my vicegrip, inside the car, the water is now funnelling out of the open cap like a New Zealand geyser and all of River Road is wondering what on earth this mad Mzungu is doing here anyway. I grab the battery terminal and pull it off - easily, as such things are never tightened on Kenyan Corollas. The engine does not stop! I then grab at the plug cables and eventually all is quiet, except of course for the River Road buzztrack. The driver's window is a tweak open, my arm can only go in to the elbow. Steve tries, he pops his elbow thru the gap and opens the door, his arm now firmly stuck in the window. I have a moment of sheer horror as I wonder which way to press the electric window button. Will I release his arm or chop it off?
With both his arms intact, no bicycle and a newly completed tour of the backstreets of Nairobi, Steve and family head off for Kisiiland...and I, eye on the heat gauge, head back up the hill.
Nairobi's roads have now reached saturation point. The rate of imported Japanese Toyotas arriving is exponentially faster than the rate the new Chinese imperialists are building roads. Well, rather the Chinese are funding the building and the Kenyans are building. The Chinese are clearly after the ample raw materials and trade opportunities and the local road builders, well, shall we say, are building..slowly. The biggest delay seems to be that every time an extra lane is levelled and laid out alongside the freeway into town, an equal amount of time is spent piling small rocks onto the cleared area. Why? To stop the Mutatus using it as an overtaking opportunity of course. Then the next day the stones are all taken off so the builders can build and so on and so on.
So it's Friday and the mother of all jams is building up. I decide to take a back route because there's only one difficult 3-way stop as the car is overheating imminently. There appears to be some sort of accident in the middle of the intersection....Cops all over the place, 2 cars stopped in the middle of the road....I spot a gap and hive off into a Shell garage, get out the car, now pulsing with steam and walk back to the corner to check out the scene. Well, no accident, just a police road block and a clearly highly irritated Italian trying to appease a recalcitrant policeman alongside a huge Pajero, so new that nothing in the world could possibly be wrong with it. I start to imagine the conversation.."My friend, eet ees making a beeg problem here for the other cars. Maybe I can help you out a leetle with some nice Palermo vino, some nice girls with thighs like ravioli...""Are you trying to bribe me sir! I trust you are aware that we in the Nairobi City Constabulary view such actions as being counter to the ethics of our profession...."
Dream on Smith, dream on.I return to the car, loosen the cap, drain the steam, fill it up with water and try to start it. No luck, I pack my bags and walk home, happy at last.
20 minutes en route, I get a call from Ida to say she has severe chest pains and is rushing to hospital. She tells me to get a taxi and meet her there. I run there and get to the the Aga Khan Hospital 1 and a half hours sooner than the taxi would have.
For the next 3 hours we experience a different world. Gentle caring medical staff, efficient and fast tests and treatment for Ida. R800 later, an ECG and blood tests confirm no cardiac infarcations, just extreme fatigue and stress. We head off home in a hired Kenyan Corolla, delivered to the hospital by Josephine of African Adventure Travel.

We now have 3 hired cars, 2 Corollas and a Rav 4. Out of all of this Ida hopes to get a long term hire deal on a small 4x4. It is increasingly obvious that Kenyan Corollas are not the best way to dodge potholes. Their wheels are just too small.

Wind forward to Monday. We have successfully got rid off one Corolla. Ida is about to drive to work in the Rav. I notice the one stop light is faulty so I check the fuses - 2 of them are jimmied with wire. The car will not start. I check the battery. The terminal is broken and jammed on with a nail. I pirate fuses and a battery from the Corolla and get Ida off to work and get down to connecting up our inverter in my workroom. Why, I don't know. There has not been a power out in weeks here.

Maybe this is where all our load shedding in SA goes to. But somehow I don't trust this Indian summer. It's bound not to last.

Welcome back to Nairobi.

budgie - May 2008

p.s. Found another RAV today. Half the price of the troublesome one and twice as good. It's even got 2 large sexy spotlights on front. Did a serious test drive, tried the radio for BBC World (Thank god!) and are now holding thumbs that we will at last have a vehicle reliable enough to take all our 2008/2009 visitors on, come on you lot...come and visit. The return fare ex Dbn is only R4300-00 and you'll be collected from the airport in a shiny silver 4x4, you'll be accommodated in the Masaai room with a gentle view of our very own Maragetti river reserve and enjoy daily free breakfasts in our treehouse diner.

In the meantime I am continuing my search for 2 wheels. Today I did the tour of the bike shops, from Yamaha to Jialing. Good bikes available, mostly out the box models that we no longer see in SA. So if you want a classic Suzuki TS185 (like I lusted after in 1971) then Kenya is the place. There is one problem however. The process of getting your legal number plates (registration) takes up to 6mths after buying the bike. It appears that the delay has increased from 6 weeks to 6 months since they computerized the process. Now there is total computerized chaos. I also now understand why so many bikers are riding around with no number plates!
If you feel that the above is a touch of Afro-pessimism, well I guess you are right. However, once you are familiar with how things work here, it can be a really cool place to be - especially if you thrive on 'Do-it-yourself'.
Someone like Clive Read would manage perfectly and end up living a life of luxury with lots of wildlife issues to get stuck into. (see
Me, I'm still trying to work out the balance between the first world and third world Smith. Can they co-exist? I suspect they can...but it will take some more months of problem solving and low crime to really get good at it.
Meantime...what are you waiting for...come and enjoy the wonderful and friendly folk here, the safe-by-night feeling and the endless variety of great restaurants....and bye the way, we have uncapped satellite broadband from Stuttgart in Germany.

Lesson Learnt exe!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Budgie,

    Love the insight into 'River Road'. Talking about roads.. I have been on one for the last month or so off and on. I had a major mail melt down problem a while ago and have lost your mail contact. Can you send me a two-liner saying, fu.. off or similar, so, I can reply!

    Talk soon,