On driving and the shortness of life

I hate driving. I can do it but I would much rather not. Nobody in my immediate family has ever dropped out of any school except me—I dropped out of driving school. Three times. I took a year to complete a course that takes people a month. I also dropped out of law school later on but that’s a story for another day. I drive only when I have to and there are very few instances where I have to drive so I don’t do it much. The result of this is that I am more outraged than the average middle-class Kenyan about the lack of affordable and convenient means of transport. Matatus are nightmare, bodabodas are a nightmare, driving is a nightmare, Uber prices are a nightmare. I use this to justify my homebody life. Transport in Nairobi is designed to encourage me to stay at home.

I only went to driving school because my father would have it no other way. I escaped it for a whole year after high school. Most Just-Out-Of-High-School people can’t wait to start driving. My younger brother finished high school a year after I did, went to driving school, finished, and was driving competently before I even gave driving school much thought. My sister, who is only now in Form Four, began talking about learning how to drive before she even joined high school. I don’t get it. I had to be threatened into driving school. My father did everything within his power short of tying me up, throwing me in the boot of the car, and leaving me at a driving school with no means of getting back home.

I went through three driving instructors and three Provisional Driving Licences during that year. The first instructor had no patience for my reluctance to learn. He didn’t care whether I got it or not and neither did I. So that relationship was doomed from the start. I dropped out after only five lessons. I don’t even remember his name. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever knew his name. My memory of him is limited to how he would laugh at me during the practical when I was not getting it.

On my second attempt, after a couple of months, I did some theory classes and almost no practicals. Then I dropped out again because I was frustrated. I am generally a decent student but I spent those theory lessons wondering what was going on. People don’t drive the way we were being taught to drive and most of our roads sure as hell don’t look like the ones on that board they use with the toy cars to teach theory. I couldn’t think of the two—practical and theory—as basically the same thing. And I didn’t like the instructor who was teaching the theory because he was one of those people who talked non-stop and had a whole bag of those jokes that only the person telling them thinks are funny. So I just stopped going.

When asked why I dropped out, I would give reasons that seemed good enough. Or good enough to afford me the benefit of doubt. “I don’t have time because of my class schedule”. That’s a pretty good reason, right? Like, you would squint at me, not knowing whether I was for real or not, because something about it would seem suspicious, but then you would just let it go because maybe I was telling the truth. I did have a crazy class schedule at the time but if I had wanted to, I could have worked around it.

So many excuses, so little time.

My last instructor was talkative enough to seem friendly and quiet enough for me to stand him. I don’t remember his name but I remember that he had a Skiza tune on his phone—those ones that talk about the name of the person you are calling. Annoyed the hell out of me. It’s interesting to hear the first time you call that person but after that it’s like, why? Why are you doing this to the people who call you? Is it that you don’t want them to call you? Because if that’s the case, you could just not pick their calls, you know? But I endured it because this instructor didn’t laugh at me, didn’t get annoyed when I did the wrong thing, and was generally mild-mannered. His most effective teaching technique was to tell me ‘Wacha kupiga nduru’ when I began to panic. It worked but I must categorically state that I was not screaming. I really wasn’t. But even if I were, it would be justified. What else is a normal reaction when the car you are driving begins to roll backwards when you are going up a hill? Or goes off when you are in the middle of a highway? Damn manual cars.

Which brings me to the worst thing about driving school. Nobody can make me understand why I had to learn using a manual vehicle. It makes no sense and if you think it does, I am sorry but you are wrong. Go argue with someone else. There is no situation in which I will have no means of moving from point A to B except an old pick-up. I told someone this and they were really reaching looking for circumstances in which I would have to drive a manual car. Sijui I might be stranded on rough terrain somewhere in rural Kenya and there is absolutely nobody else around who can drive and there is no other car except this manual one, and there is a woman going into labour that I must take to the nearest hospital which is 30 kilometres away… As in…No.

First of all, I don’t even remember how to drive a manual car. So even if that woman was already in the crowning stage, I would be in no position to help her. I would be of more use to her learning how to deliver a baby than trying to drive that manual car.

I am not going to buy a manual car in the future. My parents’ cars aren’t manual. I have no interest in manual cars whatsoever nor are they available to me. Why did I waste a whole year trying to drive a manual car then? Tell me how that is different from me spending all of high school trying to balance equations in Chemistry. Both those things are useless to me and took time out of my life that I will not get back. Time I could have spent doing more meaningful work, like fighting for accessible, affordable healthcare so that that woman in labour doesn’t have to depend on my inexistent ability to drive a manual car to save her life and her baby’s. Or, you know, napping.

It’s been three years since I finally finished driving school and I still don’t like driving. It’s such a hazard. And yes, I know almost all of human living is a hazard, but when I am walking I am not constantly aware of the fact that I can easily take another person’s life. Or another person can easily take mine.  It doesn’t help that not a day goes by without a road accident being reported on the news. I saw someone saying on Twitter ati ‘gari inajua njia ya kwenda nyumbani’, in response to another tweet about the dangers of drinking and driving. It’s things like that that make you give up on humans altogether. Driving is a hazard even when you are sober and this guy is talking about the car knowing its way home. Such garbage. And you see, these are the people you are sharing the road with. Hazards everywhere.

Two weeks ago, I was in a matatu going to church. I was running late (of course I was) so I was too busy asking myself why I am like this to fully register it when the matatu swerved a bit too violently. I only half recall the swerve but I remember 100% of the sound of the matatu ramming into something. The matatu stopped and everybody alighted. It was a man on a motorbike. He was lying on the ground, still sort of on his bike. He wasn’t moving and his eyes were closed so I began to panic. Naturally. I was thinking, ‘I swear if this man is dead I’m going to pass out.’ I have never witnessed an accident like that, you see. I find them when they have already happened and there are no bodies to see and wonder if they are dead.

After a while, the guy opened his eyes and turned his head. I’m standing there, relieved, when I notice people have gathered around a woman who was sitting on the ground a few metres away. Kumbe the guy had been carrying a passenger (without a helmet, I should mention) and she had been thrown a distance away on impact. Thankfully, she wasn’t badly hurt. Neither of them were. The flesh on some parts of their arms and legs seemed to have been scraped off by the tarmac, so they were bleeding, and they were in shock. But they were alive and hadn’t broken anything. In fact, after a while, the two of them wanted to get up and continue with their trip. The woman looked agitated when she was told she had to go to hospital, like she needed everyone to understand that she had things to do and places to be. I got on another matatu soon after but as I was leaving, they seemed to have seen the sense in getting medical attention first.

I left with many ‘what ifs’ in my head. What if I were the one hit by a matatu. What if I hit someone when driving. What if I had been seated at the front of the matatu and witnessed the whole thing happening. Such questions normally don’t have answers. All I came up with is the conclusion that life is short. So I had two samosas and two mandazis for breakfast, even though my calorie counter disapproved.

I don’t think I will ever enjoy driving. For all my excuses, I know that the reason I don’t like it is that I am afraid. Driving makes me hyperaware of the shortness of life, how easily it can all end. It makes me think of the people who have lost loved ones in accidents, of the loved one I have lost. It makes me remember vividly all the images of mangled vehicles that I have ever seen. You know how when you pass an accident scene slowly after being stuck in traffic because of that accident, you crane your neck trying to see just how bad the crash was, how it happened, whether there are any bodies still there? Yeah. That stuff makes you think about your life, whether you are living the way you would like, and such other existential things. That’s a lot of mental and emotional work to do every time you drive, so I just don’t. Notify me when there is a new transport alternative. Obviously, I will be at home.

But because life is short, I have given myself a holiday. It’s beautiful here and I wish I didn’t have to go back to Nairobi in a few days. The only problem is that I can’t stop thinking how quickly life ends even when I am here, in relaxation mode. Not in a morbid way but in a what-can-I-do-to-make-this-day-count way. Because life is short, why not do the things you want to do now? Not tomorrow or ‘in the future’. Right now. So here I am, thinking about how to be better, how to be happier, how to be. Before I know it, I will have come to the end of the shortness of life, as will everyone else, and I want to get there happy. And isn’t that the dream?

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