In another life, I was dawn. Not afternoon, night or evening but early dawn; the tricky transition between night and morning before anything takes shape, before anything means something. A time when shadows refuse to stir and the sky hasn’t revealed itself. In early dawn, even the dogs have stopped barking, for that deep darkness will still even the loudest of voices.
Folklore has it that the hour between 3am and 4am is The Devil’s Hour. A time associated with supernatural events, when witches and demons crawl the earth, when ghouls are at their most powerful. Apparently it’s the peak time of supernatural activity. Bad shit happens between 3am and 4am.
It’s also the time most people stagger from bars and get on the road.
So I had an idea.
Being December I thought I’d drive all around Nairobi’s major highways and small roads at 3am-4am and see what I find; men behind wheels. I imagine finding trench-coated police roadblocks sticking breathalyzers in mouths. Maybe they’d allow me to get in the back of the truck where drunk drivers are waiting to be transported to cells to sober up. I hear the conversations in there is stuff for the movies. I wondered if I’d run into cars involved in accidents. If I was lucky I’d have a conversation with someone just spilling out of a wreckage; incoherent, confused, drunk and saying, “ya Mungu ni mengi, acha Mungu aitwe Mungu.” In fact, I had a title ready for this article; CARS IN DITCHES.
So on two separate nights, Saturday mornings, I woke up at 2:45am, slipped into warm, comfortable clothing and sat in the car and studied my Google maps. I figured a red on the road meant a string of traffic which, at that hour, could only mean there was an accident and folk had stopped to help, or rubber-neck, or cops at a roadblocks.
There weren’t any suspicious activities but Apps lie sometimes. So I winged it. I started with Thika Road. I drove in silence. Thika Road was clean as a whistle. A smattering of cars zoomed by, perhaps guys setting off early to Isiolo or Meru or Nanyuki before sunrise rose behind their backs. I turned back under the looming bridge at Githurai. There was not a soul in sight. I kept my feet light on the accelerator, barely going over 60Km/hr. I kept in the middle lanes for easy maneuvering in case a wild drunk person came barreling behind me.
There is a scene in Training Day where Alonzo [Denzel] tells Ethan Hawke’s character to roll down his window during patrol. To hear the street. To smell it. To become one with the streets. I rolled down my window and the cold bit off my ears so savagely I rolled it back up. Screw hearing the streets. There would be nothing to hear if the cold gave me an ear infection. The car was warm and nice and safe.
I realised in the silence that I never really listen to my car because I’m always playing music or the radio. Now it was just me and the humming engine. And darkness outside. I went over Museum Hill and turned into Waiyaki Way and headed South. Random Suzuki Ubers laboured their way through this darkness. Waiyaki Way is ugly. It looks like a stomach ulcer. Towing trucks squatted beside the road like vultures. Shadowy men sat in them, napping or just peeking out from behind the orange glow of cigarettes. There were no cars that had veered off the road, ramming into trees. Kangemi was weirdly desolate.
No police roadblock outside Kabete Police station. As I turned back, a broken down car sat abandoned in the acceleration lane with nobody inside. Down Waiyaki Way, I went. No accidents to report. Uhuru Highway – nothing, all quiet. Turned right at University Way, up State House Road, down Arboretum Drive, under the trees leaning farther into the road at this hour, creating shadows that looked like dancers. Right at the blinking traffic lights on Oloitoktok Road, no sign of any car crashes, up the road past all the the apartments with dark windows, sleeping children, sleeping couples, sleeping men, the soles of their feet so rough they can rip a Buffalo’s hide, women in lingerie and promotional t-shirts, sleeping pets, dogs, cats, watchmen, plants.
I slowed down at Kasuku Center roundabout as a car navigated the roundabout at a fast speed, the engine screaming as he joined Githunguri road. A Nissan X-trail. A husband, perhaps, who had been saying he was on his last drink since 10am. A shit storm awaits him at home or, even worse, stony silence.
Up the road, virtually countable cars. I hoped to find the cops along that road or at the roundabout. I have been stopped there once at the roadblock. Nothing that day. No cars belonging to the middle class balancing in ditches. I briefly debated whether to go up Olengruone road but I hate driving on roads I can’t pronounce at night, instead I turned left into Likoni Road. Down that bridge, now devoid of car wash guys. Ring Road. Up speed bumps. Left at Yaya center. Finally some life. Down the road a very voluptuous girl in net-clothes and very red lips stood on stilts of high heels, in the cold. I slowed down and she started walking towards me, I slowly drove off. She had a very red purse. Argwings Kodhek Road. Argwings were fellows who were getting law degrees in 1951, who were on planes to the UK in the late 40s.
At the Mbagathi roundabout, I looked towards the city mortuary where the dead sleep. On impulse, I figured I would just drive there. Maybe I would find cops offloading a deceased; someone killed by a bullet, a fatal road accident, domestic strife, suicide. Maybe I would ask them about that person who died in the accident currently being booked into this government Inn of the departed as his family sleeps at home unaware that the next day, rather, in a few hours, their lives will forever change. I stopped at the gate. I have never been to City Mortuary before. A naked light-bulb burnt outside. There was nobody in sight, so I left.
Back to Mbagathi Road, surely there should be a car in a ditch. There was none. Numerous vehicles zoomed by fast, but no cars in ditches. I entered Langata Road, always thirsty for human blood. The overpass was lit like a christmas tree. Up past Wilson airport, past Pit Stop, the home of rhumba, which seemed pretty much dead. A few young merry fellows crossed the road at the Zebra crossing, clutching bottles of drinks or the hands of girls. There were tons of cars parked between the roads, cabs waiting for 1824 to disgorge the young and free. No cars in ditches up that road. I made a U-turn at Langata Shopping Center, drove straight down, over the overpass, down to deserted Lusaka Road. DT Dobie. I entered Jogoo Road. I turned right and just past Shauri Moyo I ran into a fender bender. Three men and two women were out of their cars talking animatedly deciding who was at fault.
There was a random matatu honking at the stage before Makongeni Police. I counted two Subarus that sped past. They reminded me of Wakadinali’s song.
Perhaps the Subarus are the ones they talk about in the song, full of mambaru. I drove past Mbotela to the right. A few random guys are now venturing out, I’m not sure to do what. Still no cars in ditches. Makadara, hardly a soul. Then to the famous Buru Buru or what I hear people from there calling The Bronx. When I was in New York I decided to take the Subway to the Bronx, you know, just to see. It was everything you see on TV. The characters that got on and off the train were straight from the stuff you see in movies. Mostly blacks. No single white person rode the train. They all had sneakers. They all wore jeans. Some had hoodies. Almost all had headphones. And they all looked like they didn’t appreciate being stared at. The street where we got off was dirty and full of all manner of people; blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and it was loud and hectic and everybody seemed to be selling something and lots of graffiti on walls and the whole place felt like a strong muscle. Suddenly the phrase ‘Melting Pot’ made sense to me. It also felt unsafe. Rather, you felt like you stuck out like a sore thumb and that can be unsafe.
I turned back at Donholm and did the whole drive back, this time using Landhies Road. Machakos Airport was already awakening. I snaked through the city center, pretty much empty and drove to the Traffic Police Department Area on Ngong Road. There was not a single soul, just old towed away cars with grass growing around them, looking despondent like robots without batteries. Those vehicles all had stories. They had owners who could tell those stories. Seeing no activity, I drove further in to find enough space to reverse and turn back. A cop walked towards me from the main station. Maybe he was going to pee. Or down a block of buildings down that path.
I rolled down the window and said hello. He looked like he didn’t want to engage in conversation, maybe he wasn’t a morning person. He stopped reluctantly and said, “mzuri,” but with that, “okay, out with it, I don’t have the whole night.”
I asked him if he might know where the roadblocks are.
He asked, ‘why?’
I said because I have been looking for them for an hour now.
Why was I looking for roadblocks?
I said I’m a writer. I want to write about them.
‘You want to write about roadblocks?’ He was incredulous.
I said, ‘yeah. Well. Not exactly. But about the drunk drivers they stopped.’
He said, ‘Aii.’ He looked at my car and then looked at me.
I don’t know about any roadblocks.
‘Do you know anybody who might?’ I asked.
Then he started walking away. I drove to Kilimani Police station, maybe I’d find towed cars belonging to drunk drivers or men being offloaded from police vans to be booked into the cells. A cop slept in the little booth at the gate. Inside there was no soul except one cop writing something at the counter.
I went home.
I was disappointed at the lack of carnage on the roads by revelers. I imagined December to be the month of terrible decisions on the road. Either everybody is drinking responsibly or I was doing this social experiment on the wrong day. The more I agonised over its failure to launch the more I thought that perhaps it was a good thing that nobody was getting killed or maimed in road accidents after drinking. No news is good news, no? Maybe the good Lord is truly watching over us.
Whatever it is, keep drinking responsibly. Leave your car keys at home.