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Archive for August, 2010

Three girls fetching water at a borehole (photo by michael trezzi)

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Driving down Tom Mboya Avenue, one fine saturday afternoon, I dropped off a friend who needed to catch a matatu to Eastlands, Nairobi. I rarely drive in that neck of the woods of the city simply because the traffic is absolute murder. But i gave it a go, much against my better judgement, assuming that it was after all just a saturday afternoon.

 On the return trip out of the CBD I took what turned out to be an illegal U-turn, not helped by the fact that there is not one traffic sign in sight. And there was a man in blue, topped off with a white hat. He raised his hand at me and I knew I had run into the law. He gave me an impromptu lecture in the middle of the road and before I could say vuvuzela he was sitting in the passenger seat and telling me to drive on.

He continued his lecture about me breaking the law by making an illegal U-turn and I was now in trouble. I got the drift of the conversation being that I could settle this amicably and without having to get to the Police station. Now, me being a good citizen and all that, I ignored his suggestive behaviour and decided I would accept my responsibilities and pay whatever fines I would have to.

We soon got to Central Police Station, were I was recorded in a tatty old book, not a computer in sight. I could have committed numerous offences, but I got the sense that no tracking actually occurs. I paid a 5,000/- shilling bond to a very hip looking senior police officer ( did have to nip down to the Barclays ATM across the road next to the University of Nairobi) and was told to show up at court on Monday morning without fail.

Bright and early on monday morning I was at the court gates by 7.30am, along with a multitude of others. All waiting patiently for the gates to swing open. Eventually they did, it was 8.30am. I then proceded to the traffic court with about 30 other people who constituded the weekend’s load of traffic abusers.

Sitting patiently on hard benches in a spartan and bare court room, it was not until 9.30am that the magistrate walked in. No apologies given, she got going, talking to a bevy of lawyers at the front , a conversation that ran on low tones and almost whispers. A couple of witnesses were called and cross examination took place etc. It was then that is dawned on me that it was actually a ‘robbery with violence’ case that was being tried………in traffic court!

Abruptly at 10.30am, the magistrate adjourned the session and disappeared for an hour. Just before she came back in a horde of close to 200 ruffians were ushered into caught, they were clearly the monday morning catch of matatu drivers and touts. The room was packed to the rafters with an unruly lot that changed the bare spartan ambience to one of  protecting one’s space or get run over. It stank to high heaven.

The magistrate returned and continued with the robbery case until close to 1pm, I had been in the court room for almost 5 hours!!!! The began the actual traffic cases, one by one lists of offenders were read out, you stood up, your charge was read to you and you either pleaded guilty or not. You quickly figured it out that it was a pretty wise thing to plead guilty and get fined, other wise you risked remand and being asked to return to court at another date.

The fines being handed out were quite arbitrary, following no clear guidelines for sure. This bright day the magistrate seemed to have it in for any one who dropped off or boarded a matatu at any illegal point……….10,000/= fine  each for the matuatu driver, tout and passengers too.

Finally at 3pm, my name was called up, I pleaded guilty and was fined 1000/=. Talk about an anti climax. However, it took another 3 minutes o complete the cases and the magistrate walked out, but we still had to wait for the court clerks to process the fine paper, another hour and then I had to fught with the unruly hode of matatu peole to get out the door!!!!!

I walked to the police bond office somehwere else in the court building got my 4000/= refund  and I walked out of the court buildings at 4.30pm, 9 hours from the time I first arrived!!!!! My friends were furious with me for wasting such valuable, more so for just a fine of 1000/-, apparently the traffic cop on Tom Mboya avenue would have cost alot less and I would have had a productive day at work aswell.

My civic law abiding side has taken quite a knock, the incentive to obey the law and not corrupt the system has been sorely tested. Unless kenya moves onto the instant fine system, like they do currently in Uganda, I cannot swear what I will do wen I get caught making another illegal U-turn on a nairobi street.

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war memorial on Delamere avenue, nairobi

The war memorial dedicated to ‘native’ soldiers who died in His majesty’s service during the world wars. This is on Delamere Avenue, now Kenyatta avenue. The real stunner is the bank office in the background, now known as standard chartered bank  (anti apartheid boycotts forced the name change).

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The date of the referendum on Kenya’s new constitution draws frightfully near. I have to ask the question: has the country learnt from the mayhem that followed the 2007 general elections, have the Kenyan people recognised enough how close they got to the abyss to ensure that sectarianism does not crasha vibrant economy and take her people with it.

Being Ugandan means that I have had to live through periods of turmoil, including exile, 2 military coups and a guerrilla war. But that does not mean one gets used to it. what it does is make you acutely aware of coming trouble and also makes you perpetually conscious of having to be prepared for any eventuality.

That said, The December 2007 elections caught me completely off guard. I had, like everybody else, fallen for the line that said Kenya is an island of stability, more so because kenyans do not like wars and fighting. How wrong we were all proved to be.  It begets us all to realise that maintaining the peace requires constant work, attention to detail and the nerve to make hard decisions.

I found myself relatively trapped in my house for at least 2 days during the riots, the fridge was bare and so i lived on what remained of the christmas cake. the fact that it was loaded with rum probably helped calm my shot nerves. I never atually saw any violence, but the tension in the air was almost palpable and I did not sleep much, always waiting for that knock on the door that would require me to explain my tribal ancestry.

Hence my dilemma, the referendum is 3 days away, should I pack it in and catch a plane to kampala and sit it out for a week. And if so, should I leave now or on the voting day or just before the results are announced. Or Should I just stay put and trust that Kenya’s formidable civil society (a credit to this country) will keep the government and the security apparatus on its toes and prevent any wanton post election violence. The warning signs are there and so are the discrete movements of professionals out of eldoret. A close friend who is a flower farmer is taking no chances and has moved to Nairobi already.

I am holding my breath…….I hope I dont turn blue.

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