When I visited Nairobi in August of 2012 to do some research for my thesis project, I was broke. Yaani, I had sotad seriously. As I am unsure whether that word is still part of the Sheng vocabulary, I will try and stick to English from now on. I was a poor student with limited funds, so I did what I could where transport was concerned. I walked (in that Nairobi heat!) when and where I could, and I used matatus. My first solo matatu ride after years of being away was an event in itself, involving balancing my frame over “empty space” and all (Mummy, if you are reading this you know what I mean!). For some it would be the height of indignity; that brief journey is a story for another time. Given that I used to be highly averse to public transportation, to say that things have changed is an understatement. Suffice it to say, I did what most Nairobians do on a daily basis: I javved.
At last count, Nairobi had a population of over 3 million. All the numbers I have come across show that Nairobi’s majority is made up of pedestrians and public transit users, and that less than 20 percent (hard to believe given the clogged roads) use personal vehicles. A digression on the current traffic issue: more roads and more highways do not mean that traffic will decrease. The opposite actually tends to be the result. More roads = more cars = congestion. And need I mention the economic effect of snarl-ups in a capital city? Think of the man-hours that are wasted on the highways!
Back to watu nguyas – the everyday Kenyans who use the minibuses we have all come to love … ahem, tolerate. There I go with the Sheng again. That one I think is a current phrase. Last one of the post, I promise. How should city planning cater to them? Boycott freeways, I say. Place an embargo on all roadways that have a semblance of suspension above ground. On a more serious note, though, there are two ways through which I believe the quality of life for this aforementioned majority can be improved: pedestrian pathways and a more efficient public transit system.
We’ve all been there – or maybe it’s just me: during that hour-long trek from the house to the Westlands commercial hub one occasionally encounters what can only be described as narrow strips of weather-hardened mounds of dirt embedded with small rocks that defy conformity to any foot sole (woe to any female who happens to be wearing flats!). What makes it worse is that some of these narrow vichochoro are sandwiched between uncleared bush (a veritable hinterland-in-city condition) and busy roadways, which means that one has to constantly be on guard. If all roads were constructed with pedestrians in mind, then sidewalks would exist for every thoroughfare. I am not referring to just the busy city centre areas. I am also talking about the back roads and single lane two-way roads that connect the suburbs with the business districts. That’s asking for a lot, I know, but it would actually enhance both the cyclist’s and walker’s experience and make for more aesthetic roadways. These pathways need not be fancy. Permeable pavers can do, or embedded wood planks. Design competition, anyone? Imagine if every well-traversed tarmac road was flanked on either side by beautiful Kenyan-made walkways. It would say to the average pedestrian, “we care enough about you to make you a priority on our roads.” And then maybe we will all live happily ever after. Just kidding. That photo of a person walking on the elevated roadway that goes past the Meridien hotel in the CBD should have been enough to tell Kenyans that something is wrong with our approach to human and vehicular traffic.
And speaking of vehicular traffic, public transit is here to stay, regulated or not. If more than 80% of Nairobi’s residents rely on matatus then surely they should feature somewhat on the agendas laid out for city transport. I suggest (and this is nothing new or original) a designated lane for public transit vehicles where possible. As we wait for the touted BRT system and the trains (hmm … more on this later, I hope), this is one way we can temporarily decongest our roads. I dare not offer any commentary as yet on other intricacies involving PSVs: regulation, park –and-ride systems, transit routes, etc.
Our approach to transit design and use need not be a copy-paste from what we have seen in other cities (except for the cases which apply to us). Public transit users and pedestrians have long been dharaud, albeit in subtle ways: poor walkways, priority given to the car instead of the pedestrian – the list can keep going. Perhaps it is time we paid attention to this somewhat marginalised group. Maybe then our eyes will be opened to new forms of urban design. And that, my friends, is my unsolicited opinion on the matter.
Yaani: “What I mean is…”
Sotad: From Sheng sota, meaning to be broke. English “d” added to make it past tense.
Sheng: Slang derived mostly from Swahili.
Matatu: A public transport vehicle, usually a minibus.
Javved: Nairobi slang (not Sheng). Past tense of jav, meaning to use public transport.
Watu nguyas: Plural of mtu nguyas. Sheng phrase derived from the words mtu (Swahili for ‘person’) and nguyas (meaning ‘mine,’ a reversal of the Swahili word yangu); used in this context to mean the everyday individual.
Vichochoro: Swahili. Plural of kichochoro, used here to mean a narrow footpath.
Dharaud: Englishified form (past tense) of Swahili word dharau: to despise.