Posted by: Donna Douglass | Tuesday December 13, 2011

Nairobi: a runner’s snapshot

In some ways it’s not unlike anywhere in the western world, full of people trying to eek out a living day-to-day. Oh, the roads aren’t the best, and a maze of potholes combines with frequent and unmarked speed bumps to keep traffic slow. Only the wealthy few even have cars to dodge potholes, but trucks, busses, matatus* and pikis** are rampant, mixed with bikes piled six feet high with crated goods destined for roadside shops and four-foot square wheel-barrow-like carts pulled by a person in lanes of traffic.

We avoid the rush of exhaust-belching vehicles by running before sunrise. This morning, as I ran, the solid line of walking commuters faded into the dim haze down Riara Road. We like Riara Road because its street lamps are often lit. Other times, long sections of its straight mile-and-a-half are very dark, or suddenly go very dark as we run. Dark would be fine, were it not for the aforementioned speed bumps and potholes, which disappear in the darkness, much like the commuters do in their muted, formal work clothes…

From time to time I’m reminded that I’m in Kenya, home of very strong runners: commuters carrying umbrellas for the frequent rains, often pass me as I trot along at my top speed, dog in tow. Chili accompanies me on these runs, since we’ve heard that she’s a better protection for me than pepper spray or mace, and so far she’s worked great – dogs here are either guard dogs or rabid. Consequently, most people (including us!) wisely fear them. Chili’s excellent company, too, except when we happen upon the occasional herd of goats or cows grazing on the few grassy patches alongside random roads even here, in the middle of the city.

As dawn advances later in the run, we sometimes slide over onto the dirt sidewalk for softer footing, which my aging joints and Zoe’s little sibling inside me appreciate. That is, if it hasn’t rained in the last few days, which transforms the uneven sidewalks into slippery web of mud rivers. On a good day, I don’t have to bathe Chili after a run, but she’s coming to accept the frequent leg washes.

All told, Nairobi is just another international city, with nuances like any city and much in common with other places where cultures from around the world collide and blend over time. That being said, we both escaped city life as teenagers and eagerly anticipate doing so again, despite the many conveniences of Nairobi.

*Matatus have a life of their own, lending humor and excitement to the otherwise painfully chaotic city traffic. Comprising about a fourth of road-bound vehicles, these small vans carry up to 14 passengers legally (many more in reality) and form the spine of Kenyan public transport. Like taxis elsewhere, they are the fearless masters of the road, weaving through traffic, often starting a third lane in the center of the unmarked strips of shoddy asphalt called major avenues. This third lane starts and stops at unpredictable intervals in either direction, though for some unspoken reason, rarely in both at the same time. Pre-scraped and dented, matatus edge into the slightest space between crawling cars, block traffic for one another (or occasionally charitably for someone else), and nose out into oncoming traffic forming impossible gridlocks. When lines of pollution-producers pack so densely onto the road that traffic stops altogether, a regular rush-hour occurrence, they can be seen bouncing along undeterred on the muddy “sidewalks”, taking advantage of their high clearance to cut back into the fray further up the road. Surprisingly these apparent rogues run regular routes, indicated by a small, square number posted in the windshield or held out by the driver’s helper, who operates the door, often while hanging out of it much of the time. Unfazed by conditions we call crazy, men behind the matatu steering wheels can often be seen smiling or laughing as they play their life-sized game called driving in Nairobi.

**Pikis are motorcycles, though most here are small, lightweight and very dingy. They flow smoothly through drudging traffic, weaving between the center “lane,” the curb and occasionally the sidewalk. Slick loves the fact that a piki can transform a four-hour traffic jam into a ten-minute maze, but dreads trucks and busses because of the opaque clouds of black they belch out whenever they inch forward.


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