(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Accidents Happen

I should preface this post by saying that this is not a blog entry about me or my family being in an accident. In fact it’s not about anyone I know being in an accident. Okay, now you can read the rest in peace. To some extent.

There are a couple of things that prompted this text. One was something I saw just a few minutes ago. The other was something I saw a couple weeks ago. 

I was driving to work. I normally leave the house between 6:30 and 6:45 depending on how much milk I needed to clean up. I go early for a number of reasons. One is that I zip through town more quickly and safely since there are fewer cars on the road. Traffic is never really bad here and it’s been even better since the crisis began last year (lots of people with cars have fled the country). They also banned motorcycles in the city center since that has been the vehicle of choice for grenade throwers (and drive-by shootings as happened yesterday). Finally, there’s also been a fuel shortage lately so there a few vehicles unable to obtain petrol.

Another reason I leave early is that I like to get in the office, get my coffee going, sit, think, read emails and prepare for the day before the chaos hits. I tend to get in a bad mood if I don’t have that time to myself.

I’m also spoiled in my commute in another way. The entire cross-town commute takes a whole ten minutes, tops. I usually listen to a BBC podcast on the way and I barely get a third of the way through it before a saluting guard greets me at our office compound.

After passing in front of the brewery, I enter a rather dodgy roundabout. I say dodgy since people coming from one of the main arteries are often entering it at a fairly high rate of speed. They don’t have right of way and they have a good view of traffic so they, particularly motorcycles and bicycles, try to hit it such that they don’t have to slow down or, God forbid, stop. 

I’ve seen many close calls and had a couple myself where someone misjudged their ability to get into the roundabout without hitting a vehicle that was crossing in front of them. This morning, however, a motorcycle came speeding into the roundabout from the right in front of me. While I was a safe distance away, his focus on being able to dart in front of me likely prevented him from noticing a slowly plodding, overloaded bicycle that was going the reverse direction to my left. The motorcycle slammed into the bicycle sending bags of ground cassava flying in different directions. Fortunately he hit the back of the bicycle in such a way that the cyclist (these guys are known for their incredible balance and strength) impressively landed on his feet as his wheels disappeared from underneath him.
All this was unfolding as I passed by. I thought briefly about stopping but as I looked in my rear view mirror, I could see crowds gathering. Even the motorcyclist, who had gone into a slide as he hit the bicycle, was already getting to his feet. It was clear that there miraculously would be no serious injuries and a mzungu stopping would be counterproductive. It’s a judgment call that one needs to make from time to time in a context like this and often times the right call is counter-intuitive from what you might do in a developed country.

obviously not the guy that was hit but a similarly impressive example of strength and balance
The other incident that I intended on mentioning was something that happened when I was in Nairobi a couple weeks ago. I was in a taxi heading to the airport in pre-dawn darkness. I was staring out the window in a bit of an early morning daze, thinking how much I wanted to be sleeping. All of the sudden the driver slammed on his brakes and swerved to the left. My window was open allowing the cool morning air flow into the car and as I looked down I could see the body of a man lying on the ground. He was obviously dead and surrounded by a sizeable pool of blood. He just lay there as cars drove around him. I asked the driver about stopping and he said absolutely not. Not only is it dangerous, there wouldn’t be anything we could do. He said that he would notify the police at the airport checkpoint just ahead. 

in and out of Nairobi by night
It was a horrible and sad sight. I thought of his family that was unaware of what had just happened. The sight was (is) imprinted in my mind and it bothered me off and on throughout that day. Coincidentally, that evening as I was combing through security reports and some other articles on Burundi and the region, I came across an article about Nairobi being one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a pedestrian. According to data compiled over the past thirty years, road fatalities in the country have increased five-fold. Almost half of the 3,000 people who die each year in car related accidents in Kenya are pedestrians, the highest in the world. What I saw was obviously not an anomaly. 

There is a long list of things that can kill you in sub-Saharan Africa. For an expat, the highest on that list is a vehicle-related accident (and no, it’s not being eaten by a lion). Fortunately for my staff, they do not need to cross a busy highway on foot in the dark. Unfortunately it’s something that hundreds of people need to do every day. I realize that cities such as Bujumbura and Nairobi have other priorities but my experiences, and that article, lead me to believe that there are some low-cost ways to make things a bit safer for an already vulnerable population. But it probably won’t happen in my lifetime.

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