Driving in Kenya is a very interesting experience. In theory, I won’t have to take the driving exam to get my Kenyan license, as I hold a valid US license and an international driving license from AAA. But if I did, here’s what I imagine would be on the exam. This is just a taste of what I deal with on my 15 minute commute in the morning.
1). Open all windows and the boot (trunk), and unlock the doors when going through security. For many reasons, Kenya has gotten a lot more security conscious, and to enter every mall, business parking lot, or housing estate, there’s a manned security post with a variety of vehicle barriers. Some guards see a mzungu face and wave you through, but others open every door and physically inspect the vehicle looking for hidden machine guns or smuggled camels or a platoon of Al Shabaab or whatever.
2). You don’t have to wait for a break in traffic to merge. Just sort of insinuate your car in between two other cars and go. Most likely someone will yield and let you in. If not, you just sort of sit there blocking traffic until someone does. Give them a little wave of thanks. If you wait for traffic to clear you’ll die of old age. No one ever waits. Right of way is a very loose concept. Kenyan drivers are remarkably polite and unaggressive (except for matatus and bodabodas), and road rage is very uncommon.
3). Always avoid potholes. This may mean swerving into the other lane in front of an oncoming matatu or lorry, but potholes here are serious. The Toyota Belta I’m currently driving has small 14″ rims, and there are potholes here that are easily a foot deep and two feet in diameter. Not a good combination. Frequently you’ll find uncovered manholes in the middle of the road too. Wouldn’t be good at all to hit one. It would ruin a tire and rim and likely bust your shocks.
4). Avoid cows. They will walk right out in front of you without a care. Even in Nairobi. Cows have the right of way. Hitting one would be bad for the cow, and making the Maasai owner mad would be very bad for you.
5). Bodabodas (motorbike taxis) will drive in the center of the road between traffic, even if there’s no room. Try not to hit one. That would be bad. Don’t be unnerved if one overtakes you carrying 4 passengers, a baby, and 10 crates of eggs, with no one wearing helmets.
6). A freshly broken tree branch or a large stone in the road is the equivalent of an emergency triangle or flare. It’s an indication of a broken down vehicle ahead, probably a large lorry. It will be right in the middle of the road with guys working on and under it. Try not to hit them, or the lorry, or the oncoming traffic that is also swerving to avoid them.
7). Some (most) Kenyan roads are just built as a place to put speed bumps. This country loves its speed bumps. On some stretches they are running out of room for more speed bumps, and the road is just becoming on big bump. Be on constant alert for speed bumps, because if you hit one at speed you will launch into orbit. They come in all shapes and sizes, marked and unmarked. Some are too large for a normal car to pass over without bottoming out, so you’ll have to attack them at an angle. Caution, they sneak up on you an ambush you without warning, especially at night.
8). There are no rules in roundabouts or 4-way stops. Just go and hope for the best, and try not to hit anyone. There’s a major 4-way intersection near my office (Karen Road and Lang’ata Road) with absolutely no stop signs or road signs of any kind. It is complete vehicular anarchy, yet somehow it functions and I haven’t seen an accident there yet, although today I did see a lot of broken glass, so apparently accidents do happen. This country is a libertarian motorist’s dream. “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do, I do what I want! Howbow dah?”
9). Kenyan cops now have the breathalyzer, known locally as the AlcoBlow. They mostly use this as a way of making money from bribes. But be careful if you go out for drinks and drive home, as they set up sobriety checkpoints strategically at places most likely to maximize their income.
10). The new highways that Kenya has built are awesome! A Sunday drive on the Southern Bypass is like the autobahn. Kenya really is working on improving its roads, and the sooner it has more like these the better. On this road most of the above doesn’t apply.