/ 23 September 2011

Driving in Nairobi a test of nerves — and patience

“So, will I have to pay a bribe?” I ask the driving instructor half jokingly, watching out for the heart-stopping sight of Nairobi’s minibuses scooting past, driven so fast they look as if they are in take-off mode. “You mean they didn’t tell you in the office?” he asks aghast, one hand on my wheel, another chewing through a lump of khat. “Of course, you will,” he says, his eyes rolling. “These are Kenyan police officers.”

I’m sceptical. After 12 one-hour “how to” lessons on dodging hand-pulled carts and making out what my drug-fuelled instructor really means to say, this is the first I’ve heard of handing over a kitu kidogo – Swahili for “something small”. So when he says it will be KES (Kenya shilling) 1 500 (R120), three times the daily wage in Kenya’s capital, and that I will have to give it to him, I know I’m being had.

“Look,” I say, “if they want one, they can ask me themselves.” In the end, 80 other would-be drivers and I get a 25-minute lecture on “Don’t even bother trying to bribe us” from the police commandant about to administer our driving tests on a sunny summer’s morning in Nairobi.

Most of the day is spent queuing. Queuing to fill in forms. Queuing to hand in forms. Queuing to get a bottle of Coke as I wait to get into the queue with everyone else to get quizzed on my knowledge of driving on Kenyan roads.

It’s 12.30pm before I finally step out of the sun to do the theory test. Some of the questions are uniquely African: “What should you bring in your car if going on safari?” Others are obvious: “What is a caravan?” Many are plainly unusual: “How many eyes does a driver have?” Answer? Three.

His own and the mirrors. The test certainly doesn’t seem thorough, which might explain why Kenya has one of the highest road accident death rates in the world — 510 people involved in fatal accidents for every 100 000 vehicles on the road. In South Africa it is 260 and in the United Kingdom 20.

A police officer points at a round­about and asks me to drive a miniature car around a model town board, designed to test my ability to switch lanes on roundabouts. “Okay, go sit under the tree and wait for your practical,” he says. “That’s the hard part done,” a passing Kenyan whispers in my ear.

I don’t believe him. At least not until I cram myself into the back of a car with two others, with another, barely out of his teens, in the front. Beside him is a police officer. “Are you Ethiopian?” he asks the boy, now moments away from getting his driving licence. “Yes,” he says, his voice twitching as he is asked to switch the engine on and put the car into first gear. “What are you doing in Kenya? Selling AK-47s? RPGs?” “Student. I’m a student,” he says.

On command he pulls the handbrake and stops before a speed bump. “Okay. Next!” says the officer. It all seems a bit too easy — until the next drives the car up on to a curb. “Fail!” shouts the officer. “Get out! Next!” I’m up. I clamber into the driver’s seat, giving the gear stick a shake to make sure it is in neutral.

“You can start,” says the officer. I put it into first, slow down at a speed bump and, when asked, slip the car into second gear. I put my left foot on the brake. “No, no,” says the officer. “You’re supposed to use your right foot. But I think the manual might be confusing you, no? In your country you will be using an automatic, right?” “Err, umm, yes. Yes. Automatics.” (Forty-three years as a British colony but every foreigner is still an American.)

“Okay, next!” says the officer. “That’s it?” “Yes,” he tells me. I’ve passed, even if the test is more one of patience than aptitude. I give a friend a call and tell him the good news. “Can you actually drive?” he asks. “Not quite sure,” I say. “But I think it’s best if I do another one at home.”