Kimathi Mutegi @kimathimutegi
The last time I was on Outer Ring Road, it was nothing but diggers, lorries, helmets, dust — but mostly good, trusty, old-fashioned chaos. I was hopelessly lost a mere three minutes into my attempt to get to Umoja estate. So I made the decision to revisit once the confusion got some order, and turned back.
That was three years ago. And the road, it seems, has become something of a silver beauty during the time. It even picked a few magnanimous titles such as ‘game-changer’, ‘engineering marvel’, ‘infrastructural masterpiece’ along the way. Indeed, it had matured; from a 10-kilometre, two-way, single -carriage of potholes to an eight lane dual-ribbon, a transport infrastructure rarely found in Africa.
When I consulted YouTube ahead of my planned revisit two days ago, I was taken on an alluring virtual tour of the 13-kilometre stretch. The end of the clip left me drooling with desire to get a ride on the Sh8 billion sensation. Consultations with friends and colleagues who make part of the 2.6 million Nairobi’s Eastlands population that the road serves were less optimistic.
But not even their doubts that I would either get mugged, get caught up in a lengthy traffic jam, kill a pedestrian or get killed would dampen my want. Puzzling difference So, it was with a heart overflowing with confidence and a tank full of petrol that I took the turn-off from Thika Super Highway at the GSU headquarters.
Traffic was slow. But a police officer was braving the drizzle, gesticulating, pointing, waving and stopping, to ensure traffic remained in motion.
There appeared to be little difference between Nairobi drivers and sheep, seeing as both have to be herded in a similar manner to prevent avoidable pandemonium.
The cop waved us on and I waved back at him with a huge smile, at the same time joining Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers as they serenaded each other through the car speakers.
The officer’s face went through a series of contrasting emotions as he tried to figure out what degree of ‘crazy’ I was at. I was happy. Dolly and Kenny lost me so I hummed along as the masterpiece emerged in front of me. The design was a spitting image of the design in YouTube –but just that.
The pretty landscaping was absent. Traffic flow was as erratic as it can get in Nairobi but, above all, the blue-canopied pedestrian crossings so prominent on the video clip were nowhere in sight. But there was a perfect explanation for this.
Kenya Urban Roads Authority (Kura) says the road is 88.5 per cent complete. Before I could wonder how pedestrians are expected to make it across the incomplete per centage, a Pick-up truck laden with construction equipment cut in front of me nearly taking off my left head lamp with the protruding arm of a wheelbarrow.
I blasted a protest honk after him, the lengthy, angry type. I don’t think he gave a hoot. My evasive action had also forced me onto the service lanes. I was not as happy any more.
I don’t see how anyone would be anyway, in the sort of mayhem I found myself in. With two wide lanes, there was actually generosity of space. But the left was half taken by vendors and a sea of humanity.
The remaining bit of road became our battlefront. Matatus, handcarts, motorcycles, more humans and a few dogs, all scrambled for a piece of it, all seemingly hell-bent on either squashing or getting smashed. I suddenly became aware that my insurance policy is the type that doesn’t cover my own paint work.
Leaving the service lane became an urgent obsession. But the bedlam made a swift escape impossible. I honked at a matatu calling for passengers in front me but stopped after receiving angry stares, mostly from the blokes on foot. It took the moments of furious patience to relocate my laptop from the passenger seat to the back seat floor as well as to confirm that the car doors were locked.
That is after I noticed a few interested peeps from some pedestrians who didn’t look like they teach anyone’s Sunday School. By now, my happy hormones had all but fled into the comfort of our office. An uncomfortable throb to the left of my tummy had taken prominence instead.
Not even the commotion of people scrambling out of the way as some garage types in overalls rolled a huge, muddy tire against oncoming traffic could cheer me up. After what seemed like a million near-misses, an exit opened up. Two lanes of unmarked tarmac have never felt so good.
I could breathe again. But more importantly, I could move. I was even beginning to like the road. But then the encounter with a woman, a child and a bail led me to a troubling discovery.
The woman seemed old enough to be my mother. On her back was a grey, sparkly sweater, the kind that was highly fashionable before I grew a beard. There was an ugly, brown patch on the right side of a lesso wrapped around her torso. The shine of wetness was evidence the fall had been recent.
Her head was half buried under a bail of what I supposed was second-hand clothes. She was restraining a very uncooperative pre-school kid, her grandson, I presumed, from getting onto the highway she was trying to cross. The pair stood rooted on my lane and that’s because I stopped to let them cross.
But the other lane wasn’t so generous. None of the drivers flying past on it dared sacrifice a few seconds. The rain was also falling at an angle assisted by the wind.
The woman was sheltered by the sack on her head. The kid wasn’t. He didn’t seem to like the rain. And the honks of impatience going hoarse behind me were piling more pressure on the already distraught pair. So I stuck my right hand out the window and waved frantically, trying to get a kindred soul to stop so the pair could cross. Angry horns and a wet sleeve was all I got.
At the same time, the little tyke freed his grip and took a step towards the other side. With the agility only a woman can muster, she yanked back the protesting future leader just in time as a yellowish-green 30-seater matatu roared past, horns blazing, lights flashing before it screeched to a halt 20 metres away.
It off-loaded a young couple right there on the express lane and screeched off in a plume of diesel smoke, uncaring of the fright it left behind.
After what seemed another eternity, there was a break in the traffic. As the grateful woman hurried across, it dawned on me that this 88.5 per cent of construction work loathed the non-motoring kind.
Even the bumps were seemingly erected to lure pedestrians onto the path of killer machines as drivers barely slowed on them. With walkways stubbornly stuck in the remaining 11.5 per cent of incomplete work, crossing the eight lanes required the agility of a super hero and perhaps a few extra lives. It was easy to make sense of unofficial statistics that four pedestrians are killed on the road daily, mostly at night.
Besides, getting over the barriers and trenches separating the lanes was a logistical nightmare, especially for women. As I drove back to the office later, I resolved that indeed, Outer Ring road is an engineering marvel.
But why couldn’t the contractor factor in movement of the dense population before completion? Footbridges would have made sense from as early as the day of ground breaking, no?