I wrote this story several years back but never got around to formally publishing it. No effort is wasted though; a year or so ago I was crossing the Railways roundabout and who do I bump into but Sang; and he remembers me. We exchanged numbers. I don’t mind having a cop for a friend. This is Kenya; we all need a cop friend.
It’s a chilly morning and though the last vestiges of darkness are still hanging around, Nairobi city is very much awake. The usual hordes are alighting and getting into buses headed for God-knows-where in the usual Nairobi urgency.
Having been used to getting into town much later after day break, I am actually surprised at the number of people already up and about.
The people jam is almost as thick as during the later hours of the day. I check the city clock at the Old Nation roundabout. It is 6.05 am.
I have to hurry to my day’s post- the Uhuru Highway-Kenyatta Avenue roundabout (commonly called GPO roundabout).
On arriving there I find the traffic cops, stern-faced, busy at the four intersections. I try to speak with one of them who is nearest to me, but he rudely shoos me away. “Later,” he says. “Can’t you see the way the jam is thick here? Find someone there to talk to,” he tells me as he points towards the direction of the GPO and immediately gets back to the middle of the road with the same no-nonsense look, ear on the radio.
He probably thinks I am lost and asking for directions. I look around and finding a traffic light pole, I lean on it and watch the proceedings. After all my assignment today is to spend the day with the traffic officer and his colleagues. No need of getting uptight about a man who is doing his job.
Besides me is a crowd of girls in wigs, stilettos and tights, advertising an energy drink. I wince at the sight of the 6-inch heels thinking of the strain those calves must be feeling. A security guard watches over the promotion material placed strategically on the round about. On the round-about itself, another group of six girls looking silly in one huge t-shirt make the rounds as they advertise a new tariff for a mobile service provider. One of their colleagues is moving around with a horn-speaker advertising the tariff to the chagrin of the motorist whose nerves are already frayed from being held in the jam for too long.
I eventually approach another officer who this time takes time to listen to my rather naïve explanation about how I want to spend the day with them. He refers me to the officer in charge who is at the extreme end of the round about. I take about five minutes trying to navigate through the heavy traffic to get to the other end. To my disappointment, I discover that he is actually the officer I had approached in the beginning. However I cannot even get to him as he is perpetually situated in the middle of the road. I have been here for a little over an hour and I am already tired. The dust and smoke in the air too is making my eyes smart.
Finally I get to talk to the officer in charge who absolutely refuses to give his name, and he explains that the jam is unusually bad because traffic had to be held up as the Head of State was coming from the airport that morning.
“The problem with Nairobi roads is that when one road gets closed all the others clog up,” he tells me but has to leave to attend to traffic. He whistles to his colleague across the road, I suppose signaling him to open his side of the road. It’s 8.25am and the jam is as thick as it can be. I drift back to the officer on Uhuru highway who informs me that he is called Sang.
“We can’t use the traffic lights to direct traffic,” he tells me. “Sometimes the volume on one route is heavy and if we were to follow the lights alone, people on Mombasa road who left home at 6.30am would get to town at 11am. There was a time people complained that we were meddling with traffic lights so for two days we were at our posts but let traffic move with the lights. We have never witnessed so much chaos on the road like those two days. We had to revert to directing the traffic ourselves.”
Archaic traffic lights
Sang explains to me that the timing of the street lights is archaic and cannot adequately cater for the upsurge in the number of cars on the road. The traffic lights operate anticlockwise and so do the cops. That means that after traffic on Kenyatta Avenue from Community is released, then it is followed by Uhuru Highway from Mombasa Road, then Kenyatta Avenue from town then Uhuru Highway towards University Way round about and so on. Only when one road is blocked can they alter the pattern to avoid deadlocking the roundabout.
The timing of the street lights itself has been allocated according to deemed priority. For example the “go” lights on Uhuru highway out of town and into town take a bit longer than the rest. I notice that the traffic from Mombasa road keeps getting stopped after every few seconds. Sang explains: “We have to intervene depending on the priority. In the morning, the priority is getting people into town. In the evening it is getting people out of town. The other roads, therefore, get less priority.
“Other times one road may get blocked so we let the ones that are open to go. Even if the light turns to green and the motorists keep on hooting, we just ignore them because there is simply nowhere for them to go. We can’t let them block the roundabout. When traffic lightens, we revert to using the lights,” Sang tells me as he flexes his legs. “This work can be tiring you see, but we have gotten used to it” he says. And I totally agree. My legs are already twitching from the strain of being on my feet for so long.
So what time does he report on duty? “Sometimes I have to be here by 5.00 or 5.30am. Most times however I am here by 6.00am. That is when traffic starts building up,” he tells me.
Usually, the traffic officers report to the Kamukunji Police Station at 5.00am for briefing on what is expected on the roads that day before each goes to his week’s post. The next week, for another seven days, Sang tells me he will be at another spot.
It is now 11.00am. Motorists are now relying fully on the traffic lights and we can all take a breather. However a slight jam is developing near GPO and when one officer arrives there, he finds that a Citi Hoppa bus is picking passengers from the road thereby blocking traffic. Sang stops it and orders all passengers to get into another vehicle so that he can take the bus to the Traffic Police headquarters. However, the passengers in revolt refuse to get out since they have already paid the bus fares.
“Why are you delaying us here and it is not our mistake,” one man goes at the officer. “Just deal with the driver or his conductor and let us go.” But Sang is adamant. He is taking the vehicle to the headquarters. Eventually he has to call the chief who convinces the passengers to take another bus once they have been refunded their money.
Traffic continues moving smoothly and for the best part of the afternoon, the motorists abide by the rules. I take this chance to grab a bite and rest my tired feet.
I am back at my post by 2pm and I find the officers still at their positions. “People like us gave up on ever being light-skinned,” Sang jokes. “No matter what lotion or face cream we use, with the sun on us every time, we just get darker.”
One driver ignores a stop sign and almost gets himself crushed by a trailer right before us. Sang just looks at him and shakes his head. “I can’t intervene as he might now get knocked down and killed. The best thing is to let him go.”
Three O’clock comes and the afternoon is largely uneventful. Traffic is still smooth. My back aches, my legs hurt and there is a dull thud in my head now. Despite the Lucozade energy boost in my hand, I feel like my knees are going to give in any minute. Why has the city council never thought of fixing one of those green benches here, I muse, but then, who am I kidding? I finally succumb to the temptation to sit down and since the only thing I can sit on here is the tarmac, I head for a nearby bench on Uhuru Park from where I can monitor the traffic situation.
By 3.30 pm, most of the lanes are at a crawling pace, especially those headed out of town. Only Uhuru Highway to Mombasa Road seems to be moving fast. But even that soon gets choked up in heavy traffic. After close to one hour of recuperating on a bench, I join Sang on the Uhuru Highway junction. Traffic continues building up slowly and by 5.30pm, it is choker blocker everywhere. The officers have suspended use of the lights and are now directing traffic themselves. Uhuru Highway towards Mombasa Road hardly seems to be moving. Very little priority is also being given to Uhuru Highway into Westlands.
Sang informs me that a vehicle has broken down on Chiromo Road and is blocking traffic. There is no where for motorists to go so he can’t open the road. And anyway, those vehicles have many other options of getting to their destinations without using Uhuru Highway, unlike those on Kenyatta Avenue that have only that route to get into and out of town, he explains.
The girls in stilettos are back doing their theatrics on the road. Through all that time, the security man guarding their promo materials has stayed put at his post in the middle of the highway and so has one of the young men doing a promo for the mobile service provider. Two of the girls catwalking across the road almost get knocked down by traffic.
On Kenyatta Avenue into town, the lights turn green. One motorist attempts to go but receives a stern warning from one of the officers who firmly places himself in the middle of the road. Horns start blaring for one annoying minute. The officer however is not moved. One driver rolls down the window and begs the officer to let them go. “We have stopped enough now,” he says. The officer explains that queues are long all over. There is no way he was letting them block the roundabout.
Its 6pm and it’s getting chilly. More people call and beg the officer to let them go and finally he does. It is now dark in the city and Sang informs me that being a Friday, the earliest he can get away is 9pm or 9.30pm. I shudder at the thought that I could be having two more hours here. My feet can not hold me for that long.
“Actually when you are in a place like Kencom, even if you came to work in a good mood, it gets spoilt. The people are many, the cars are many, and the stage is small. Sometimes people should just understand what a traffic police officer goes through before they endlessly harass us on the road,” Sang explains to me. I stop him. He doesn’t have to explain any further. The twelve or so hours I have spent there have earned him my respect and sympathy.
Mad respect traffic cops!