Mary Walker: Driving, snowboarding collide

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Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safe house for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage.

There are some interesting parallels between drivers in Kenya and snowboarders in Colorado. At the risk of employing some vicious stereotypes of both, I ask readers to consider the following:

Learning style and the learning curve in both activities goes something like this — have a friend who is self-taught spend a couple of hours with you “on the bunny slope.” For Kenyan drivers, this means finding a road, preferably paved, that isn’t jammed with other vehicles. Your friend will teach you the basics of starting the car, keeping it running, moving forward, making left and right turns and, hopefully, stopping.

By now, it’s time to go home because it’s just darn stupid to be out in Kenya after dark. Your friend forgot about the lessons on how to maneuver in reverse, how to merge into traffic, how not to jam intersections and basic common-sense considerations like allowing ambulances to get past and how to use your horn. But your friend is busy tomorrow, so you’ll just have to manage those on your own.

For snowboarders, have a friend who is self-taught first show you how fast they can go and how fast you surely will be able to go in a couple of hours. They teach you the basics — starting, make left and right turns and, hopefully, stopping. Your friend forgot the lessons on how to maneuver in traffic, where to come to a stop that is safe, common-sense considerations like being aware of your blind side and how to alert someone of your presence. But your friend is busy tomorrow, so you’ll just have to manage those on your own.

So the next day, out you go, Kenyan drivers and Colorado snowboarders — the fast learning curve means that just a couple of hours of instruction and you know all you need to know, right? I really don’t mean to demean Kenyan drivers or Colorado snowboarders. But whenever someone asks me about driving in Africa, I think about some of the parallels with going skiing on a Saturday during Christmas weekend. In both cases, if we all recognized a few very common-sense practices, the whole endeavor could be much more enjoyable, and safe, for everybody.

I’ve watched in amazement, sitting in snarled Nairobi traffic, as an ambulance tries to get through with no one making any effort to allow it. Everyone here likes to blame the matatu (small public bus) drivers for Nairobi’s traffic woes. But matatus routinely drive across medians, down the wrong side of busy roads, take alternate routes even with passengers on board who need to be on the established route and drive on what pass for sidewalks here. From what I’ve experienced, they never “trade paint,” as my husband Michael describes it. It’s the passenger vehicles that usually are in multi-car accidents. And it’s the passenger vehicles that routinely jam intersections because drivers just don’t get the notion that allowing the intersection to stay open actually would facilitate movement.

I’m doing my part to improve Nairobi traffic. I instruct my taxi drivers to give a lift to old women with loads of water, food or firewood on their backs. You’d be amazed how many vehicles have only one person in them, even in rural areas. I refuse to get on matatus that have their radios turned up so loud that they can’t hear an ambulance siren, car horn or screaming pedestrian. One day, I even stood in the middle of an intersection after disembarking from a matatu and hollered at the tout (the guy who collects the money) to return my fare to me for diverting from the established route and leaving me a long walk in the hot sun. I won — he returned my 20 bob (about 25 cents), and the jam that had developed was cleared.

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