It’s a Monday morning…no it’s a Wednesday evening…. or a Saturday afternoon.
Regardless of the time, day, weather or month, Nairobians are bundled up in their individual cars. Hiding behind dark-as-night tint; with the windows rolled up tight. Not for safety but because we thrive on existing in our own bubbles. Shut away from the happenings outside- dreading human interaction. But more than anything, as a status symbol indicating we DON’T actually have to interact with anybody . As we hide away in our luxury cars, swimming through the city we announce that we can afford these luxuries. We are above ‘other’ people; above using public transport; above sharing spaces because we clearly don’t know what carpooling is (hence the ridiculous traffic that characterizes the city).
A close friend of mine who works in London, came home for the holidays last year and upon seeing that i had tinted my car windows as I went to pick him up, asked me a really simple question… “why are Kenyans SO obsessed with tinted windows?”. And it got me thinking…are other African countries/ cities like this? And that’s what spurred this blog post. My first of many in a series of how obsessed we are as Kenyans- and more so Nairobians- with status in general. All our odd quirks as a people.
Thus, being a victim of the tinted-window-disease I felt it was only apt that i wrote about it not as an outsider looking in, but as someone who was somehow sucked into this peculiar lifestyle. When i moved back, i didn’t even briefly entertain the idea of tint. It wasn’t that i hated the idea, or found it ridiciulous. But it simply did not cross my mind. Till it did.
It began with Nairobi’s sharp afternoon sun slowly darkening my skin, and the severe heat in the car that comes with this African sun (ok, I’m probably being dramatic. It’s probably only severe in December and January but i am clearly not built for African summers, I actually prefer the cold). Even having the windows rolled down, or the AC on doesn’t save you as you boil away in traffic on Uhuru highway. So one day, in a bid to reduce my body temperatures and save my precious skin (I promise i’m not vain), I decided to tint my windows. Months went by and the car was generally cooler and my skin wasn’t burning anymore and i thought ‘hey! this was a brilliant idea!’. I felt my reason for tinting was legitimate but also, admittedly and much to my dismay, I realized i loved the idea of not being seen. Of being securely hidden away from the world behind the dark tint- where no one could see me inhaling my afternoon sandwich as i drove. Of being safely shut away from the happenings outside. And i silently wondered who this person i had become was. I was slowly but surely becoming a ‘Nairobian’- and I didn’t like it one bit.
While travelling to different countries, and living in Cape Town for a few years; i came to the realization that we simply don’t have a walking culture. Capetonians walk everywhere, no matter who you are or what the weather might be like. I won’t even get into the numerous health benefits of walking because this is not a post about healthy living; you can subscribe to Healthy woman magazine for that. But a serious interrogation into our lack of a walking culture. Is it because we equate walking with being less privileged? Is it because the city’s architecture is essentially car-centric and pedestrian walkways are few and far between? Even the few that do exist are mostly dilapidated. Is it because our drivers do not respect pedestrians and zebra crossings are nearly a myth? Is it because we basically have a non-existent public transport system? All the above?
Personally, I don’t have an answer. Although at the back of my mind I do suspect it is all the above. I don’t know whether the next generation will change, or if our culture will change in the near future especially because we haven’t made significant strides to indicate we are willing to become less ‘car-centric’. There are a few people sprinkled here and there who have warmed up to the idea of either walking, or cycling to work. You will see them dodge past cars, weaving through the traffic at all hours of the day. One blogger whose page i stumbled upon called shecyclesnairobi, shares her tales on cycling in the chaos that is Nairobi. It’s definitely a must read.
According to Vision 2030, the Nairobi government plans to encourage a ‘cycling city’ in the next 15 years, by investing millions in cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways. Whether this will be another ghost project like many others in this country,is yet to be seen. But i honestly hope it will come to be realized because something has to change i.e our obsession with cars as a symbol of status and upward mobility.
If numerous cities in Europe can do it, why can’t we?