Letters from TZ

East Africa, we have a problem: A tale of two drivers

Who says that we are not united? We have more in common than we care to admit. But unfortunately for East Africans, it’s our bad habits that seem to define us most. For example, we are driving ourselves to distraction on our roads. A recent report found that Tanzania has the best ones, but that doesn’t stop drivers from displaying their worst behaviour.

Of the paved roads in Tanzania, 70 per cent are in good condition, compared to 47 per cent in Kenya. Of the unpaved roads however, 31 per cent are in good condition compared to 50 per cent in Kenya. So basically when the rubber meets the tarmac in Tanzania it’s almost 100 per cent smooth sailing, but when drivers encounter rough roads it’s another story altogether.

Just the other day, I experienced first hand the kind of problems that arise when bad drivers meet bad roads. I came upon two cars that had come to a complete stop, right bang in the middle of a narrow, unpaved road. I was less than a minute from home and it was about 6.30PM. The cars were more or less parked on the road, facing each other like two cockerels in a ring.

The vehicles might have been in ‘park’ but the drivers were in full gear, arguing over which one of them would have to reverse. One of the drivers was drunk. “Just because you have a big car you think that I should reverse my small one, eh? Just because my car is small!” The other driver was as sober as a judge and just as intransigent. “I am not moving. When I saw you standing at the side of the road talking to your girlfriend, I stopped and gave you time to finish so that you could move your car but you ignored me for almost 10 minutes. That is disrespect!”

Pretty soon, the whole neighbourhood had come out to witness the spectacle. A middle-aged woman, who cut the figure of an English school matron, took it upon herself to referee the shouting match. She carded the sober driver for insinuating that the drunk was chatting to his ‘girlfriend’. “How do you know that she is his girlfriend? Who told you that? He is your elder. You should respect him and reverse your car!” The sober driver asked why she was getting involved. “I have eyes to see! You should reverse, if not you can both sleep on the road!”

By this time, the sun had gone down. The lights from the stationary cars cast a yellow glow on the proceedings as residents looked on, fascinated. The whole thing began to feel a bit like community theatre. There were now four cars ‘parked’ behind mine and one behind the vehicle that had started the whole debacle. All attempts to reason with the drunk were met with a standard response. “Just because you have a big car you think that I should reverse my small one, eh? Just because my car is small!” It was all becoming very annoying. Finally, both drivers relented and manoeuvred their cars out of each other’s way, leaving the road clear for the rest of us.

It turns out one of the drivers was Kenyan and the other was Tanzanian. As they stood there battling it out, both willing to fight to the death, they looked absolutely and utterly ridiculous. It didn’t matter who was wrong and who was right anymore. It had come down to a staring match and woe to the man who blinked first. Now it was all about who would get his way, instead of who would give way.

And that’s our problem, we East African drivers. We don’t want to give way. We always want to be the car in front, even if that means regressing to childhood and behaving like infants. Causing mayhem on the road is one thing that comes naturally to most of us. We overlap and overtake as if we were coming to the end of the road, with nothing else in mind but our own destinations, bad mouthing each other every step the way. When we get to wherever, we put our feet up and reflect on how very different we are. How the foleni in Dar is far worse than the traffic in Nairobi. Or how the Tanzanian road network is far better than Kenya’s labyrinth of dusty diversions. Like a wise man once said, we’re like pygmies fighting among themselves, not realising that none is taller than the other. Or that we should focus on slaying the giants instead of causing injury within our own camp.

Forty-five minutes after I came upon those two drivers on that unpaved road, they finally gave way. It was bout 7.15PM. It had taken close to 60-minutes to make a 60-second journey. What a waste of time. It made me think about African development. Instead of gaining ground, we’re losing time and getting left behind.