On the African Road

I never thought I would welcome the sight of potholes on a road. A trip in an overcrowded matatu (three-row vans that transport passengers to different towns in Kenya) at 120 km an hour at night changed my mind, as the potholes served as a cause for deceleration and a chance to breathe a sigh of relief. With armed conflicts and the omnipresence of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, it is easy to forget about another major killer of Africans: motor vehicle accidents.

According to the 2009 World Health Organization Global Status Report on Road Safety there were 2, 983  traffic-related fatalities in Kenya in 2007 with 47 percent of deaths being that of pedestrians. Neighboring Uganda reported 2,838 deaths, with the number of road-traffic deaths increasing by approximately five times since 1991. For context, in 2007,  the rate in the United was 1.44 deaths per 10,000 registered motor vehicles.

In Africa, public transportation is key to getting around from village to village and even from country to country. But, African public transportation bears little resemblance to America’s speedy subways and trains, clean buses, and regulated taxis. One must know how to bargain prices, recognize corrupt drivers, and accept that each row of seats will have at least two more people than intended capacity. Further, despite traveling at astounding speeds, an extra two hours should be added to any travel time estimation, to account for people getting on and off at random points and for the driver to get another beer or two at a local bar.

While journeying to the Maasai Mara game park on the Tanzania-Kenya border, and to the headwaters of the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda, I realized that an unaccustomed traveler is forced to adjust expectations for travel here, as everyone is on “African time,” and public transport travelers are completely vulnerable and at the mercy of the driver to get where they need to go. For the casual traveler, there is no other available means of transportation.

It seems the risks of the public transportation system are normalized among Kenyans, in spite of the fact that nearly everyone seems to have a friend or relative that has died in a car accident.  There are many factors that combine to form recipes for road disasters in most developing African countries. The ones I have found most prominent in Kenya are lack of seatbelts, lack of enforcement of speed limits, unlit winding and narrow roads, corrupt or drunk drivers, and an absence of sidewalks, which in turn forces people to walk on the shoulder of the roads. Bus drivers frequently fill their gas tanks up with petrol while the engine is running and the bus is full of passengers.

Kenyan passengers appear unperturbed, as the matatu reaches full acceleration with broken headlights, speeding around cars and people on dark, bumpy roads.  In many towns there are few traffic lights—only speedbumps to slow down traffic. The common technique for driving past speedbumps is for cars to quickly skid around them, lifting two of the four wheels.

Although there are police checkpoints to ensure cars aren’t speeding and aren’t overcrowded, the locations of the checkpoints are no secret. A car that I was in came to a screeching halt to slow down before arriving at  a fully expected checkpoint.  Some passengers got out, so the car would appear less crowded to the authorities, and then hopped back in once the car passed the checkpoint.  The car then sped off, swerving around an 18 wheeler full of petroleum. One night, a crowded van I was in ran out of fuel miles before the next village. The driver pulled over only partially on the side of the road, left the car, and hitched a ride on a motorcycle with an empty bottle to fetch more petrol.

In many parts of Africa, poverty, disease, and violence are severe and widespread.  With so many prominent problems, improving roads and infrastructure can seem like less of a priority. However, while many Americans would be ill at ease to get into a crowded matatu or get behind the wheel on unpredictable African roads, Kenyans have no choice. Although disease and genocide are pressing issues in Africa, road traffic injuries are predicted to become the third largest contributor to the global burden of disease by 2020. According to a 2003 article in the International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion, road-traffic accidents are the third-leading cause of death in Kenya, with more than 75 percent of those deaths being of economically productive young adults.  Herein lies the significance of roads.

An increased emphasis on the development of transportation infrastructure could have spillover effects on other aspects of life in Africa. Increased mobility would permit more tourists and more economic benefits, which would help raise the standard of living. Maybe if more international attention and government money went to law enforcement on the roads, tougher regulations on taxi and matatu drivers, sidewalks for the thousands of Kenyans who walk many kilometers on the side of the roads, improved access to emergency medical care, and better-lit streets,

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.