Names. Just names. Names of several people without faces. Names with no life. Six names on a paper for the police, 11 for the newspapers.
Life is funny, isn’t it? You spend a whole life with a face, then in the blink of an eye, you are gone and all that remains is your name on a piece of paper. Isn’t that just sad?
For the six-or-eleven, depending on who you ask, death came via a bus whose brakes the driver says failed when he needed them most, knocking them down and running over some of them at the crowded roundabout that also serves as a market in Githurai 45, Nairobi, three weeks ago.
Witnesses, however, say the bus, like many others that ply this route, was carelessly driven when it ploughed through pedestrians, past the roundabout, and on to a matatu parking bay before coming to a stop.
What is indisputable, however, is the deadly destruction it left behind; men and women sprawled on the road, some dead on impact and others slowly dying. Around, wails and confusion as the magnitude of the accident sank in. A scene as horrific as it was avoidable. Then the police arrived, followed closely by journalists — and the lists.
At the Kasarani police station, the division boss, Augustine Nthumbi, hands out a piece of paper with the names of six people on it. “Those are the dead,” he says. Four died on the spot while two succumbed to their injuries in hospital, he adds.
Eleven others are listed as “injured”, but since that was all of three weeks ago, Mr Nthumbi does not expect more deaths resulting from the accident. Newspaper reports, however, put the number of dead at between eight and 11.
So, how many died that fateful evening? We put that question to the operators. At Ronald Ngala Street, from where the bus had started its doomed journey, two managers of the Paradise fleet do not have an idea how many people died either. One says he was not at work on that day and excuses himself after refusing to disclose his name. His colleague, going by the single name of Abdi, says he does not know either.
“Ask the driver,” he brushes us off. “His name is Kariuki Marangu (who has been at the Industrial Area remand prison since the accident). He will tell you how many people died and what happened. Or ask the traffic police at Kasarani.” His by-the-way irreverence betrays the don’t-care attitude with which this incident is viewed by his ilk. At Ronald Ngala, just like at Githurai, no one knows how many died, and none cares.
But should it be that way? Has human life lost meaning on Kenya’s killer roads? It has been barely three weeks since that incident and life has gone back to normal for the hawkers of Githurai, the police on Thika Road, the bus owners, the passengers… all is well, save for those six-or-eleven who perished. No one cares until they see the eyeballs of their loved ones frozen and glassy.
For route 44/45 on the new Thika superhighway that leads to Githurai, that reality is never far away. Because, you see, this is a wickedly special route. The road never looked so good: It is wide, black, smooth, and endless. Drivers have never been tempted and tantalised this much. And they lose themselves miserably to speed, recklessness, false pride, and confidence in their abilities.
The problem starts at the city “stage” for this route along Ronald Ngala Street. There is actually no bus stage here… because none was built. Ronald Ngala, therefore, was not designed to host the madness that it hosts today.
The bus operators are here because they negotiated with the city council to allow them to use the spot. And so today Ronald Ngala’s outer lane is occupied by the parked buses picking up passengers, with 100 or so touts shouting “Fifthe! Fifthe!” in shrill voices at intervals, their cacophonic, illicit choir reminiscent of frogs calling out in the dead of night.
On this street, everything moves. The buses, though in theory parked, are constantly shifting their positions, as are the tens of mini-buses and tuk-tuks and the thousands of people here.
Hezron Njoroge, the Mashallah fleet manager, says they cannot afford to sleep on the job because the police and city council askaris “are constantly on our case”.
“There is a problem between us and the police,” he says, “and that is not just here, but along the way to Githurai as well. All the police stations on that route — Central, Kamukunji, Pangani, Traffic Headquarters at Survey, and Kasarani — are on our case unfairly.”
But even with all that policing, there is something inherently wrong with the average Githurai bus. All you need to do is see one, on the move or parked, to realise that disturbing fact. The gaudy paintwork, loud music, and deafening horns are all a violation of traffic rules, yet they seem okay to all the police officers on Thika Road.
The buses are a law unto themselves and, because of that, a nuisance to every other road user. Their drivers are the biggest bullies in Nairobi, their conductors the most uncouth, their touts louts in uniform.
That is why to many people who use Thika Road on a daily basis, the Githurai accident was always coming. The police immediately sprung into action to restore order and sanity after the accident, but many questioned that knee-jerk reaction when rules are flouted under their very noses every day.
In essence, then, the Githurai fleet is the embodiment of what is wrong with Kenya’s implementation of traffic rules. While the law is clear on speed limits, paintwork, yellow lines, crew uniforms, and noise levels, the police have adopted a peculiar working habit of sting operations once every few months instead of a strict, no-nonsense, daily enforcement of the rules.
At the office of the Nairobi County traffic commandant, Patrick Lumumba Adera, a board stands majestically to announce what is right and wrong within his area of jurisdiction. The statistics on display, however, paint a very grim picture of Nairobi’s roads.
For instance, the year 2011 alone recorded 728 road accident deaths and 2,591 injuries within Nairobi alone. And between January and July this year, Nairobi County recorded 1,181 accidents involving 2,044 victims, 455 of whom died and 1,589 were injured.
A huge chunk of those statistics came from Thika Road, that tempting, smooth highway that is the emblem of Kenya’s strides in infrastructure as well as a fitting case study of policing failures.