It’s amazing what you can learn when you chat to strangers – especially drivers in Kenya.
While on my way from Ukunda to Mombasa, the driver told me something which has stuck in my mind: “I wish they (the government) would let us have our own freedom to sort out our own affairs. Nothing to do with politics. We’re not interested in politics. We at the coast just want to do things our own way.” His slant was that when the European missionaries first came to East Africa, the Muslims were already established at the coast. And although Kenya is now a predominantly Christian country, and he looks on himself as a Kenyan, he is not about to change his religion.
My family – rightly fearful that I might come to grief amid the lawless traffic, and would at the very least waste time and petrol getting lost in the rapidly changing city – insisted on me taking taxis to get about in Nairobi. One of my taxi-drivers – I’ll call him Manuel – told me that he did not yet have a PSV licence, but he did have fully comprehensive insurance. He is full of initiative, a typical entrepreneur who networks with his friend, also operating under the radar.
Manuel is also a self-taught car mechanic, and he has a permanent job as chauffeur, taking his employer in a 4WD vehicle to work and back every day. He is an expert juggler of tasks. Whenever he lands a taxi contract lasting a few days, he tells his employer he has to go home and see his mother. But he always organises a replacement chauffeur, and everybody is happy.
Manuel picks me up at 3pm for an hour’s 15-kilometre drive to Langata. Traffic is reasonable, he says, going via Valley Arcade and Ngong Road. But he takes a short-cut. He dives into a maze of makeshift buildings and jua kali (hot sun) businesses at the Ngong Roundabout; weaving skilfully through rutted, bumpy tracks, avoiding pedestrians and cars under repair, keeping an eye out for policemen. He knows his way around and keeps the occasional askari sweet with kitu kidogo (little thing) when he has to, he tells me. His philosophy is to charge reasonable fares geared to what his customers can afford, thus building goodwill. Young and sharp, he is ambitious, but willing to bide his time on the way to building his future empire.
Ngong Road is a shambles. They’re building a dual carriageway from Karen to The Junction. Little nursery businesses are being bull-dozed along the left in brutal fashion, while tin-can enterprises are expanding on the right side of the road. Noting the hazardous surrounds, I ask Manuel who were the contractors for the new road. “It was given to a local,” he tells me. “But then subcontracted to the Chinese, who will do a better job.”
While we stagnate in traffic, he pulls out his mobile phone, and proudly shows me a picture of his latest enterprise. A “shop” comprising an empty toilet-sized shed, built of tin. Unpainted. When he installs it on the pocket-handkerchief-sized piece of land he’s laying claim to, he will put in shelves and paint it. If he paints it now, it will become scratched in the move.
“What will you sell from your shop?” I ask.
He hesitates. “M-Pesa – and probably sweets and cigarettes…”
I ask him how M-Pesa works.
It is a brilliantly convenient concept of paying and receiving cash through accounts. Virtually everyone in Kenya has an M-Pesa account number, and money can be transferred with a few clicks on your mobile phone.
“What do you get out of it?”
He has put 10,000/- (about £80) into his account and can facilitate transactions, earning a monthly commission which is calculated by M-Pesa head office. Manuel has already calculated the amount he aims to make each month. His mantra is to start small, feel his way, and go on from there. He has it all worked out: his wife will run the shop during the day and he’ll take over into the evening, after he’s finished his day jobs.
He’s already learned a few lessons. “My wife ran away from me because I couldn’t support her. I had paid twenty cows for her. But she’s come back to me after one year.”
He has already identified his next car, which will be cheaper to run, and he’ll get a PSV licence for it. He’s taught his wife to drive and will give her a car when she passes her test. His number one priority is his small son, and he’s aiming for a good secondary school, which he will point out to me later.
All this, while Manuel deftly handles his car, squeezing between lines of squiggly traffic, constantly on the lookout for openings.
I have told him that I want to drive myself in Nairobi before I return home, but need to learn my way around first.
“You mustn’t let a matatu cut in front of you,” he says as I watch a frustrated mama on my left being squeezed backwards by one of these brash, rude beasts. Meanwhile, boda bodas and bicycles weave along the fine middle line between our two lines of cars.
“You have to be careful they don’t take your mirrors as they pass,” he says, moving the wheel slightly as a cyclist brushes through.
We come to a junction and he wants to turn right, across the traffic. “You can be held up here for a long time.” With a glance to right and left, he noses the car gently forwards, eyes another heading the same way, and grabs a space which I can scarcely discern. “But today we are lucky the traffic is not too bad.”