one of our favorite sights

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On the Road

At this point I think we have logged enough miles in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi) that we can highlight some of the interesting and bizarre things that we have seen on the road. First of all, since the weather is generally pleasant here in this part of the world, and people don’t spend much time in their homes, the most prevalent item on the road, is people. People are everywhere! Adults, children, toddlers, babies on backs, schoolchildren, and old folks. People sleeping, sitting, walking, riding, carrying, holding, running, selling, waiting, talking and eating. It’s so different from home, where now and then you might run into a pedestrian crossing the road or a bicyclist pedaling around for fun. It definitely makes for interesting driving. Let’s just say the driving is not low stress.  We generally try not to drive at night, both because there are SO MANY people on the sides of the road at night AND there is no lighting not to mention lines on the roads (there are a few in towns). In fact, for some reason we have yet to understand, many people drive without lights at night, all over this part of the world. Personally, I can only imagine what it’s like to drive, as I find it very hair-raising just being the passenger.  
Kenya is particularly hazardous we find, because the condition of most roads is not good (there are a couple of main thoroughfares that are, and there are a fair number under construction as we speak) and there are an abundance of children everywhere.  Not all the roads have good or even reasonable shoulders and pedestrians definitely don’t have the right of way.
So, it was interesting driving out of Kenya, in Tanzania, and also into Malawi, where the driving experience was quite different.  Both Tanzania and Malawi have many fewer private cars on their roads, and also fewer matatus making it a bit less nerve-wracking. Matatus, which are small over packed mini vans, are the most common form of public transportation in Kenya, but not so in Tanzania. In Tanzania, one sees many more buses, for people travelling from town to town, and like matatus, they tend to drive very fast, and are very overloaded with goods and people.  There are more people bicycling on the sides of the road in both Tanzania and Malawi, both men and women, clearly en route somewhere….whereas in Kenya, you only see men on bicycles, unless it is a “bicycle taxi” and often there is a female passenger, usually riding sidesaddle on the back, where they have attached a  “seat.”
There are seemingly few laws that apply to driving in Kenya, and one rarely sees police on the road. You do see them sometimes outside of border towns, or outside of bigger cities, but they typically only stop matatus, and people say that is because they are taking bribes. They stand in their uniforms, unarmed with no vehicle in view,  so they definitely aren’t checking for weight, loads, or speeding. To our surprise, in both Tanzania and Malawi there were cops everywhere. All of the countries have an abundance of speed bumps which are designed of course to slow one down (particularly the speeding matatus and buses) just outside of every village and town. In Tanzania there were also policemen, in their white uniforms and caps, stopping trucks to check their loads and people like us, it seems. We were stopped probably 25 times on our recent trip and we received a record 3 tickets in 3 days at the beginning of our journey south from the parks for various interesting infractions. Not only were we pleased to see that the police were actually controlling transport , speed (they even had a speed gun), and safety regulations,  some of the roads in Tanzania and Malawi  (however not all, but again many were under contstruction) were in much better condition than the roads in Kenya on which we have travelled (many fewer potholes, good drainage ditches, no damage to the asphalt surfaces due to too much weight, etc.). For us, although we were given citations (which you pay on the spot and for which you are given a receipt) for speeding, not wearing our seatbelts, not having reflective tape on our bumpers and at a final funny stop, not having red reflective triangles in the car (we did end up purchasing all and wore our seatbelts at all times after that ticket!), the fact that there were controls seemed like a good thing.  Many people will tell you that cops in these countries are only out for cash bribes, but our experience was mostly positive (we had all the necessary papers, our passports and visas, a letter from IU, etc. on us) and we were only expected to give a bribe to one cop (“a friendly”) which was a completely confusing and funny experience because we were trying  to “get” what he wanted in our broken Swahili and naiveté, while also trying frantically not to get a ticket again! He was quite amused by us.
Aside from cops and speed bumps (on the “highway” mind you) in all of these countries, the most prevalent sight is people either selling wares or carrying wares. You see children and women often on the road carrying containers for water , milk and petrol,  and  charcoal and wood, so it clearly is the essentials which one must constantly pursue in one’s life here, especially if one is living at a subsistence level. You also see piles of food…the East Africans are lucky this way; food is not lacking and between the climate and the geography in most areas of these countries, there is plenty to eat all year round. Fruit! Mangoes, bananas, pineapples, jackfruit , melons, passion fruit, papaya, guava, grapes, plums , oranges, and even pears are grown in these parts, and  you will see different fruit for sale on the side of the roads in different parts of the country. Vegetables also are everywhere although it seems to depend again on which area you are in. The funny thing is you will find people hawking their vegetables along the road by standing in the road and waiting for vehicles slowed by the speed bumps. They are also at small stands along the roads or just sitting with their wares if a stand is not available. Apparently different tribes present their wares in different ways and this is noticeable as you drive through the country in any direction.
 Like at home, certain areas are good  for certain items and you can find women lining the road, with buckets or piles of potatoes, onions, carrots, peas, beets, kale, tomatoes (all plum, no round), cabbage , garlic, avocadoes and many others. If you decide to stop for something, which we often do because we love the fresh veggies and they are SO cheap, you risk being “accosted” by the vegetable sellers shoving their produce through the windows of the vehicle that might be down. We’ve taken to just pointing at the seller whom we want to purchase from so the others won’t get their hopes up.  We’ve also seen, in areas where fishing is done, young people just standing on the side of the road, arm extended, with a handful of fish on a string, hoping for a sale. Fish, bunnies, chickens and pigs are often seen either for sale or being carried by someone on a motorcycle to the market.
Other ubiquitous things  are herds of animals and beasts of burden.  Some tribes are still pastoralists and therefore you see large and small herds of cows, which apparently are still used for dowries and as a show of wealth, just walking along the sides of the road chomping away at whatever greenery there might be, or crossing or standing  in the middle. Sadly, the grazing of cattle has created huge erosion problems in these countries which one can also see while viewing the landscape. People also herd sheep and goats but they seem to run around more randomly in villages rather than being followed around on every road and in every field .
In northern Tanzania, it was very interesting to see the Masaii, who are still grazing their cattle and living a semi nomadic life, as they live in a frankly barren area which has to be as hard as it gets.  Theirs is a sad story due to the influence and importance of the tourist industry in TZ, but one has to wonder how they can hold on to this cattle herding lifestyle and why,  when it provides them with very little (they don’t eat the cows either).  Donkeys are used by certain tribes for carrying wood and water and you often see them on the sides of the road or in fields seemingly leaderless, wandering around. It’s fun here also to see wild animals which one would never see at home, just crossing the road or eating at the side of the highway. Zebras, baboons and giraffe are most visible while driving towards Nairobi and in northern TZ.
People are also selling other kinds of wares and sometimes you’ll come upon someone riding a bicycle or motorcycle with his wares dangling off the back. This could be any number of plastic items, from shoes to containers, toys or magazines or even bread. The physical labor involved in living here for most people is rather stunning;  it is evidenced easily by what one sees people carrying or pushing.  Men are seen carrying many heavy items, either on their bikes, motorcycles, or backs, from steel rods, large engine parts, to plywood, to animals, to baskets. They are also the carriers of large loads of wood and charcoal, mostly on bicycles. Women carry things also, mostly on their heads. Large loads of wood or sticks, vegetables or grain in bags, and other household items (like 5 gallon buckets of water).  Not to mention their babies on their backs.
I mentioned children earlier;  this is the sight that I will never get used to. We did not see so many kids in Tanzania or Malawi as we do in Kenya, partly because it is not so populated, but there must be other reasons which we have yet to figure out. There are children on the sides of the road in Kenya EVERYWHERE! Sometimes you see school children, all dressed up in their uniforms, either coming or going to school, but you also see lots of smaller children, carrying plastic containers, presumably going to get water or milk for the household. Children begin “working” here at a very young age. Whether it’s carrying a younger sibling, carrying some essential item for the household, helping with washing in the creeks, or fetching stuff, they, like many, many adults, are outside on the road pulling their weight for their families. We are always stunned when we take a drive by the sheer number of people working to make ends meet. If we ever have the opportunity to give someone a lift or lighten their load we try to do so. Not that it makes a big difference, but carrying someone a bit further down the road so that they don’t have to wait for a matatu makes them happy.

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