“Kenya is changing…” said the balding Inspector of Police almost unbelievingly as he sat in the passenger’s seat of the Toyota saloon car emblazoned on the sides with the Rocky Driving School sign. “Kenya is changing,” he repeated as if desperate to hold onto that ephemeral truth, to force himself to believe it was actually the case, but also seeming to grasp at a flickering hope suddenly rekindled, almost like Old Simeon praying “Lord, let now thy servant depart in peace,” as he beheld the infant Jesus on the day of his dedication in the Temple.
It was Thursday, 2nd July 2015. The Inspector was the road testing officer at the Machakos Motor Driving Testing Unit in Athi River. I was the Learner-Driver taking the test as the last stage of my journey to obtaining a drivers licence. I was one of the 41 learner-drivers from Rocky Driving School who had been transported on the back of a lorry from the Rocky office in Athi River to the Athi River Police Station to take the test.
The average age of those taking the test with me was around 21 years. I was by far the oldest. And so when I had gotten behind the wheel, and given that my driving betrayed the fact that I was an experienced driver, the Inspector had immediately asked me why I was taking the test at this time. “Ama ulikuwa umechukuwa ya magendo (Or you had obtained your licence through corruption)”, he had asked with a chuckle, thinking it was a joke. Only, it wasn’t. And I told him as much.
I narrated to him how 28 years ago, when I was only 20 years old, I had sat a driving test very similar to this one but had also paid a bribe of KSh. 600 to obtain the licence. How in April this year, following the massacre of 147 University students in Garissa by Al Shabaab gunmen who claimed that they were using guns issued by the Kenyan government to murder our children, my conscience had been so stricken that I had decided to take responsibility for my own part in the corruption that is eating away at the soul of our nation and had returned the licence to the National Transportation Safety Authority and had recorded a statement at the EACC and the DPP’s office admitting to my crime. How I had then enrolled at Rocky Driving School for a driving course and had registered to take the test. And how, finally, the day had arrived and early that morning, I had done what I had been doing for the last two months. I had called a bodaboda and riden to the Rocky office as instructed for the ride with my fellow learners on the back of the lorry to the police station.
“Kenya is changing…” repeated the Inspector a third time, still perusing the copies of my letter to NTSA attaching my old licence and the affidavits I had sworn at the EACC and the DPP’s Office that I had handed to him. “Today’s headline in The Nation speaks about the new governor of the Central Bank rejecting a house in Muthaiga and three state-of-the art vehicles” he said in awe, “And now this? Kenya is changing…”
It had been a long two month journey to Athi River for me. Two months of not being able to drive myself as I was not licenced to drive pending my driving test. Two months during which I had come to realize just how valuable that document (the driver's licence) was - if you can ignore for the moment the terrible inconvenience we all suffer as we are forced to sit in endless traffic jams in this city. I had held my previous licence for 28 years and had come to take the comforts and discomforts of having a car for granted.
During those two months, I had commuted mostly by public transport and it had been a humbling experience. From squeezing in matatus to having to connect over four times to get to where I happened to be going – for example from home to the main road on a bodaboda, from the main road to the train station on a matatu, from Syokimau to Nairobi by train, from the Railway Station to Commercial on foot, from Commercial to ABC place by matatu, from the James Gichuru/Waiyaki Way junction by another Matatu, and from Muthangari Police station to the office on foot. And then back again.
A number of times it had started to rain as I made my way to the office or back home. At other times it got so hot, that I had arrived at a particular appointment sweating and with dusty shoes (and you get very self-conscious of this because Kenyans have a habit of looking you up and down from head to toe to quickly size you up and decide whether you are worth their time, and if they see you carrying a book, a newspaper or an umbrella, that is confirmation that they should not pay you too much attention if at all since you clearly did not come to their office driving.)
It had also been a learning experience. When you have your own car, you tend to forget quickly how it was using public transport. You are used to your own space - listening to the radio station of your choice or your own CDs, having private conversations with your spouse, air-conditioning when necessary. But when using public transport, you quickly (re)-learn to share space with strangers, to have your ear drums shuttered by music not of your choice and your sensibilities violated by Maina Kageni and Mwalimu King’ang’i as they bombard you with whatever profanities that happen to strike their fancy on that particular morning.
But also, you do get pleasantly surprised every once in a while to find a sensible matatu driver who plays good music at an agreeable volume and you get to observe Kenyans going about their business with much resilience and dignity. And not just those sharing the transport with you, but everywhere as you walk in the city to connect while indulging your taste buds with roasted maize bought by the roadside. You also learn to slow down. You can afford to walk more slowly and stop to browse second-hand books on the street as you walk through town to the Railway Station to board the train.
And you have time to think, to reflect. And as I've reflected over those two months, it has become very clear to me why we have been unable to solve our multiple problems as a society, especially the challenges of rapid urbanization. The main reason is the fact that we have been schooled to think that 'making it' means not having to use public services and escaping to our private space. So the first thing that a successful professional does, or the middle class business person longs for, is to buy their own vehicle, instead of thinking how public transport might best be improved and made safer and more reliable for all. It is the same for health services, education and so on. Most of us aspire, 'when we grow up', to be like the politicians we disdain in public but seem to admire in private. Few people are left to think about how to improve public transport because we don't use it anyway, or would rather not be using it. And so we all rush to own private cars, never mind the utter madness of having to be on the road for two to three hours a day or the whole night whenever it rains.
So, is Kenya really changing?
By the time I was standing in line outside an office at the police station waiting for my licence to be processed after passing my test, word had gone round among the police officers about why I was re-taking the test after being on the road for 28 years. A police officer who had earlier taken me through the theory test temporarily abandoned his post to come and scold the young people standing in line with me asking them why they could not have the courtesy to let their elder be served first. Inside the office, the policewoman responsible for entering my data into the NTSA database had already decided that I must be a pastor and could only look at me and plead, “Pastor, tuombee na sisi tuokoke (Pastor, please pray for us that we might also find salvation).”
Given that throughout this whole process there was no hint from any of the officers I interacted with that they expected a bribe, my conclusion was that Kenya was not only changing, but it still had many people struggling to do the right thing but who feel overwhelmed and trapped by a system that tends too often to reward those who choose to do the easy wrong rather than the hard right.
But we must not give up. We must continue to fight the good fight believing, even though not always seeing, that as in the time of Elijah, “There are seven thousand whose knees have not bowed down to Baal.”
We shall overcome.