Letters from TZ

Hitting the road on a railway track

It took months to construct the super-highway that now links Nairobi City to Thika Town. Many dusty and diversionary months that caused much consternation to commuters – drivers and passengers alike. Everyone understood that the temporary discomfort caused by the road builders was going to be worth it when the expanded and re-carpeted passageway was completed. But that understanding was sorely tested time and time again, as diversions were re-routed abruptly, roads were closed without much notice and the ubiquitous traffic snarl-ups became longer and longer. Talk about deferred gratification.

Well, it has been said that a sign of maturity is the ability to accept deferred gratification, but it’s not easy to be mature in the face of a prolonged traffic situation. In fact, it is almost impossible. The term ‘road rage’ was not coined by accident. It does seem that it is easier to get angrier on the road than it is in everyday life.

Enter the move to revive Dar es Salaam’s intra-city railway service. Oh, horror of horrors. Yes. I do understand that the temporary discomfort caused by contractors digging up the tarmac on Mandela Road and elsewhere will be worth it when the trains start running efficiently, but in a few short weeks, my understanding has been tested time and time again. Every day, I find myself right smack in the middle of some railway inspired madness. Usually, the road is closed (without notice), traffic is backed up, and every driver is attempting to access the service lane at exactly the same moment in time. It’s much like a boa constrictor trying to squeeze into a Fanta bottle after swallowing hundreds of cars. Not a pretty sight. Or a good feeling, especially when you’re in one of the cars in the belly of the beast.

And truly, that would have been bad enough, but journeys that used to take less than 20-minutes are now extended exponentially. Traffic habitually comes to a complete stop, and stays that way for eons. Yes. I do know that this may sound like the usual foleni, but believe me, it’s way worse. Most especially because one of the diversions is right outside the Mwananchi offices in Tabata, which means that I’m usually sitting in traffic when I could just as well walk to work.

There’s that, and then there’s the incident where I – and several other road users of the motor vehicular variety – were almost run offer by a cargo train in the Tazara area. The last thing we expected to see in the middle of the road, even with the knowledge that the railway service had been re-launched, was a ‘choo choo’ train. Lucky for us, a traffic policeman hurriedly shooed us to safety on the other side of the track. That near death experience notwithstanding, it will all be worth it when I can leave my car at home and take the train to work. I’ll take Sh400 per ticket over Sh1994 per litre of fuel any day of the week.

Sweden runs out of rubbish

In other news, while garbage collection is the bane of our East African civilizations, Sweden has run out of trash. In a story that was first covered by Public Radio International (PRI) last week, it has been widely reported that the nation of just 9.5 million people is not generating enough burnable waste to power the country’s large waste-to-energy programme that converts household waste into energy for heating and electricity. Sweden’s waste incineration programme, which began in the 1940s, treats over 2 million tonnes of waste each year, heats 810,000 homes, and provides electricity for 250,000 homes, all from burning trash.

And now, that trash has run out. To meet the demand, the country has been forced to import almost one million tonnes of trash annually. Most of the trash imports are Norwegian. According to the PRI report, Norway pays Sweden to take the waste off its hands and in return Sweden gets electricity and heat. But dioxins in the ashes of the waste byproduct are a serious environmental pollutant. There are also heavy metals captured within the ash that need to be landfilled, i.e. to be disposed of in the ground by burying them between layers of earth. Those ashes are exported back to Norway and Norway is not complaining. Not yet, anyway.

Talk about first world problems. What a difference the mountains of garbage in Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Nairobi would make if they were turned from trash into energy. Our frequent grumblings about Tanesco, Umeme and Kenya Power could become a thing of the past, if we followed the Swedish example and developed a taste for efficient waste management. I wonder how long it will take us to see the light.