Monday, 1 September 2014

Menacing Mozzies!

What can be worse than the high pitched whine of a mosquito around your ear at night? I seem to have had a (very) minor infestation of them since I got back from the UK a couple of weeks ago, certainly more than I remember having previously. And that despite not having windows open at this time of year. Then again, doors and windows aren’t exactly sealed here, and mosquitoes really are very small. Some of them however don’t find the cracks - each morning, I’m greeted by a swarm of them when I open my front door!
It amazes me that they only seem to have a knack of making their presence known at that point at which I turn off my bedside light, and then apparently make a beeline for my ear. Or so It seems. On turning the light on, of course they vanish, though at times the whine continues with no mozzie visible (at least not to eyes no longer aided by contact lenses or glasses).
Both of my chemical lines of defence, a can of Doom and Vapemats, don’t appear to be as potent as they once were. Not to mozzies at least – I do however sometimes wonder what the effect of long term exposure is on my own health! The only thing that works these days is my bug zapper, a battery-operated racquet which, on making contact with a mosquito (or any insect), produces a satisfying spark and crackle, and the demise (and cremation) of the ‘unfortunate’ target. I do seem to have had more success recently in zapping them, getting at least one or two a day. Not sure if that is due to sluggishness on the part of the mozzies, or if I’m stealthier in my stalking them.
Thankfully, most mosquitoes here aren’t the anopheles kind which carry malaria. They’re just the kind that can cause sleepless nights, and itchy (sometimes nasty) bites.

The legs of a visitor (who'll remain nameless) after a night in my apartment!

The Great Mystery of Nairobi

I grew up knowing that red is red, meaning stop, and green is green, meaning go. However, in Nairobi, red could mean stop and it could mean go. And the converse applies equally well – green could mean go, but it could equally mean stop. Such is the mystery of approaching a traffic light here.
When I first came to Nairobi in February ’03, I’m not sure that there were traffic lights, or if there were, they were few and far between. I remember seeing a public service announcement on local television around 2004 advising pedestrians what to do following the installation of pedestrian crossing in central Nairobi. That must have been the start of the growth of the phenomenon of traffic lights. It was never clear what to do when you approached a red light. Any sign of stopping at them might lead to the cars behind you either driving around you, or alternatively hooting impatiently. I did hear of people occasionally being fined (or threatened with fines) by policemen at roundabouts with traffic lights.
In August 2013, things reached new heights when many of the roundabouts and junctions in the central part of Nairobi were adorned with new traffic lights with countdown mechanisms telling you how many more seconds you had to wait until the light turned green or red. And with cameras at all the junctions to catch those who weren’t abiding by the traffic lights. This led to some observance of whether the light was red or green. However, for some reason, it was still seen as necessary to have policemen at these particular roundabouts, who nine times out of ten themselves seemed to take no heed of the lights. I dreaded approaching a red light. All of my instincts told me to stop, yet the general flow was to go. What a dilemma! I’d choose routes to avoid the lights, rather than face the unknown meaning of a red light. And be thankful whenever a light was green.
When I headed out of town this afternoon, I approached a green light at a roundabout. Yet traffic was flowing around it from the entry points that must surely have been red. When it turned red, that was when the cars in front of me started creeping out onto the roundabout. It really is a mystery. I hope one day to understand what to do. Or maybe I've missed something altogether, and the lights and the numbers counting down, and the cameras flashing, are in fact merely a rather expensive decorative feature?

Friday, 18 July 2014

Travels en Afrique

Observations on my Ethiopian flights from Ouaga to Nairobi yesterday:-
1. Little difference between matatu and plane passengers with regard to the notion of queuing to get on the means of transport! A bit of a scrum to get on. I kept finding myself at the back!!!
2. No preference given to the elderly or those with children.
3. As a female traveller, I was very much in the minority.
4. Such a variety of nationalities and cultures (with associated dress) represented.
5. All seemngly carrying more hand luggage than the baggage allowance. We spent at least 20 extra minutes on the ground in Ouaga while the stewardesses attempted to get everyone's hand luggage in the overhead compartments, or convince passengers to put their smaller bags underneath the seat in front of them.
6. Best to carry own snacks. (I did.)
7. Best to have own entertainment. (I did.)

It was a long journey - 16 hours door to door. A stop in Niamey to pick noone up and drop noone off (!), though they wheeled up the stairway anyway, and a change of planes in Addis.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Musical Opportunities

One of the surprises I had in coming to Kenya in February 2003 was the discovery of the existence of an orchestra. Nairobi Orchestra has been running for getting on for 70 years now, initially involving players predominantly from the ex-pat / white community, and in recent years, with an increasing influx of Kenyan musicians, as classical music has been promoted locally. I’ve been privileged to have been part of this for over 11 years, both as player and as treasurer, serving on the committee of volunteers that seeks to provide a good programme of classical music. Each year, we'll have guest conductors and soloists come from overseas as our budget (or sponsorship) allows. At other times, we look within our own ranks for both of these. Consequently, I've had opportunity to play a couple of concertos with the orchestra, something that this Chemistry graduate turned management accountant had certainly never dreamed of doing prior to living in Nairobi! Such opportunities just don’t present themselves in the UK! In June 2007, I was asked to play Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D, followed by Bach’s 4th Brandenburg Concerto for 2 flutes (or recorders) and violin in March 2011. And in just over two weeks’ time, it’ll be back to Mozart, this time the Flute and Harp Concerto in C. Fish in a small bowl is what comes to mind, yet an opportunity that is not to be sneezed at (certainly not while playing the flute)!

The Scourge of the Plastic Bottle

The Kenyan coastline is beautiful. Aquarmarine waters, with bright white waves breaking onto a white sandy beach, lined with cassuarina and palm trees. There’s quite a bit of seaweed, parts of the beach seeming more prone to it than others. In places where coves face a certain direction, mounds of seaweed can stand several feet deep. That’s all very natural, though not particularly pleasant to walk through. However, what I’ve been noticing this holiday is the amount of rubbish that’s been mixed in with it – shoes (quite an abundance of shoes!), toothbrushes, and plastic bottles and bottle caps. The bottle caps can look quite colourful (red, blues and greens) amongst the brown weed, but it’s rubbish and shouldn’t be here at all, detracting hugely from the beauty of the rest of the beach. It’s made me think about the number of plastic bottles that must be being used each day, and discarded, either just tossed out, or disposed of via Kenya’s seemingly  ineffectual rubbish collection system. (Ineffectual, as a lot of it is evidently finding its way into the ocean, and in other places, trees are adorned with plastic bags.) How many meetings, conferences and hotels give out 500ml bottles, rather than using water filters which draw water from the taps, and reusable containers. There must be a better way of doing this before this country disappears under a mound of plastic.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Matumbato Potholes

Each time I’ve visited the UK over the last few years, I’ve had various people tell me about the potholes there. Admittedly, I don’t spend that much time there and haven’t driven on every road (!), but I’m not sure that I could say that I’ve seen any real potholes! Perhaps a few places where the edge of the road was breaking up a bit, or the occasional ‘dimple’ in the road surface. Nairobi on the other hand…. Whilst Nairobi roads are a lot better than you’d find elsewhere across this Continent (driving in the DRC is quite an artform!), potholes quickly form, and then turn into craters (which are then left that way for varying periods of time). My own road has certainly been that way. With all the road construction in the area (for 2 years now!), involving the digging up of tarmacked road surfaces (and not much in the way of relaying tarmac!), the main traffic through the area has been diverted along Matumbato. Hence, the road surface has deteriorated faster than it normally would. Within about 200 metres of my gate, there must been in the region of 20-30 craters in the road, requiring cars to take a slalom course in order to avoid the worst of them, or occupants being thrown around in the car when that wasn’t possible (with who knows what damage to the car’s suspension and shock abosorbers). One spanned the entire width of the road, and was on a bend, making it additionally difficult to negotiate. On one occasion, I was behind a car that had been forced to go across it, due to traffic coming the other way. With his front wheels in the hole, he then faced a problem of how to get out again!
The other day, I walked along that section of road with my camera, trying to capture the scale of the problem. I don’t think the photos give a true picture, but at least offer some idea of what a potholed road really looks like!
Bizarrely, within a week of my taking them, repair work started (maybe I should have taken my camera out sooner?), with workers breaking up rocks to fill them, and presumably at a later stage, tarmac being put over the top. I wonder if that’ll be the case along the entire length of the road – there are many more craters going the other way! 

Just outside my gate

Work started to repair the road outside the office gate. Not sure how long it'll last!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

An Eventful Drive

Tuesday evenings usually see me heading out to my church home group in Karen. It used to be that I could get there in half an hour if I left after 6:30pm. These days, it’s a different story.
Last Tuesday, It poured in the afternoon. I hoped (in vain as it turned out) that people would have left work early on account of the rain. Ho, ho, ho. Instead, within metres of leaving my compound gate, and slaloming my way around the obstacle course of deep potholes (filled with water now, after the storm), I came across hundreds of stationary vehicles before the T-junction at the end of my road. All was not lost – I was turning left, and they were all headed right. However, I still needed to maneouvre my way around them, and was then stuck, as impatience had prevailed, with various vehicles which were attempting to exit from another road, now blocking the road I was on, to traffic going in any direction. (Not an unusual state of affairs in Nairobi!) Meanwhile I was entranced by the numbers of flying termites in the air, caught in the vehicles’ headlights. It was almost like a light snow flurry.
Eventually, I was moving, and turned along the road that was recently opened having been closed for road construction for nearly 2 years. Not that it’s finished. Far from it. You never quite know which side of the road to drive on. It’s quite possible to get so far, and then find you can’t go any further. The freshly laid tarmac soon reverted back to a surface that could only be described as ‘off road’ except that this is a fairly major road through this part of town. Lurching from side to side as I progressed along the undulating stretch, staying clear from the edge which is a drop off, I got onto Hospital Road. Again, this has been dug up for at least a year now. This was now a boggy mass of mud and muddy puddles. As with many of Nairobi’s roads, no thought is seemingly given to pedestrians who this evening, were trying to pick their way through the morass, the way lit only by car headlights. (Come on Nairobi City Council – surely it’s time for more pavements for the multitudes who walk!)
Finally, I reached Ngong Road. And here I made an error, turning off onto a road that goes by Nairobi Hospital, thinking that as it was after visiting hours, this should be quicker. I sat pretty much stationary for the next 15 minutes, before admitting defeat, doing a 3-point turn, and rejoining the traffic on Ngong. That in itself was a good move. What wasn’t so good however was that this led to something of an encounter with a matatu! Just past the area where matatus and buses stop to drop and pick up passengers (they don’t exactly pull off the road to do this….) there’s a left-hand filter lane for those turning left at Mortuary Roundabout. It’s not that big an opening, with a raised curbed area, preventing you from getting in if you miss it. A van on the right-hand side of me clearly wanted to get in there, and despite being in completely the wrong lane (being in the right lane ahead of time is a concept that doesn’t seem to compute with a lot of Nairobi drivers!), he started to cut across just in front of me to try to get through the opening. I had a choice – plough into him, or slam on the brakes. I chose the latter! However, the matatu driver behind me didn’t make quite the same choice, ploughing into the back of me, and was seemingly perturbed that I’d chosen to brake! It was dark, so it was difficult to see what damage there was to my car, although the fragments of the matatu’s headlight were clearly visible on the ground. I took his insurance details, and set off, a policeman arriving on the scene just as I was ready to go. Other than the initial reaction of the matatu driver, it was all fairly amicable. (Since then, I discovered just what the damage was. Whilst relatively minor, it’s meant 3 days without a car this week while it gets fixed, and a bill of about 30,000/=. Thankfully our insurance through work is very reliable, with just an excess of $100.)
And so the drive to home group continued. Nothing overly untoward after that. Heavy traffic most of the way, three lanes of traffic where there should be one or maybe at tops two. A lorry piled high with mattresses, cutting in across the central reservation, its high load looking decidedly unstable. Cyclists with no lights or reflectors venturing along roads, seemingly unaware of the dangers of being non-visible. There’s one part of the drive that I dread, at Dagoretti Corner, which is one of the reasons I normally opt to go a completely different route. There’ve been times along there I’ve felt as though I was in a rugby scrum, getting sandwiched between 2 buses. Public service vehicles ‘need’ to get places as quickly as they can, no matter what it takes to get there – driving down the wrong side of the road, forcing other vehicles off, or driving down the pavement – and then forcing their way back onto the road again, wondering why it is that you’re not necessarily inclined to let them back in.

In the end, I made it, 1 hour 45 minutes after setting out, and an hour late. For all of 10 miles! Slightly weary, and with a rather crumpled right-hand rear corner of the car. Was this an unusual drive? Not exactly. My evening activities are regular reminders to me to be thankful that while Upper Hill is getting more built up, and the road construction is seemingly never-ending (with the mud and dust that brings, depending on the time of year), being able to walk to work rather than have to commute is worth a lot!