Thursday, October 02, 2014

Can We Share The Kenyan Space?

In the 1970s, Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, came up with the concept of “shared space” after being asked to reduce the speed of traffic in a village in north Holland. He eliminated all forms of regulation on the street and to his nervous surprise, found that average speeds fell by half. According to this 2006 article by Emma Clarke, John Adams, professor of geography at University College London, whose research laid the foundation for Monderman’s work, argues that when protected from hazards, human beings readjust their risk threshold. ‘You fit a car with better brakes, people don’t drive the same way as before and enjoy an extra measure of safety, they drive faster and start braking later.”

This behaviour is based on an assessment of the risks they incurred during their commute, which risks are often ameliorated by the traffic rules and norms. The solution, then, was to remove these rules that work by mainly separating drivers from oncoming traffic and from pedestrians, and by doing so, increase drivers awareness of risk to themselves and to other road users. “Once the tools are taken away and you put some uncertainty into the street in terms of who has right of way, drivers and pedestrians naturally become more attentive and engaged... You redistribute the burden of risk, giving pedestrians more control,” says Adams.

One can learn a lot about the problems of Kenya by observing the behaviour on our roads.

Like the government that built them, they are hideously expensive but rarely in good shape. Everyone is in a hurry to get on them only to idle away many hours in the seemingly endless traffic jams. As everyone hurries up and waits, enterprising individuals freed from the constraints of law and conscience are getting ahead. These days it seems that everyone who is anyone - from diplomats to County Governors to Cabinet Secretaries- enjoys life on the fast lane courtesy of the Kenya Police, sirens, flashing trafficators or just plain old bad manners.

The rest of us middle-class nobodies can wait after all. It’s not like we are on the way to do anything important. So what if we have to spend three hours to get to the office or home just because the President is in a hurry to get somewhere? Members of County Assemblies have also argued that they should also be exempt from traffic rules because they have weighty matters to attend. This is, of course, unlike the rest of us whose petty concern is trying to earn enough to pay their obscene wages. We have to make way.

The other interesting thing about our roads is those who are actually not on them. There’s a kind of apartheid system where the poor who cannot afford cars or get car loans to buy cars they cannot afford are considered a nuisance. They die in ever larger numbers and are blamed for it. Even the pathways and pedestrian crossings supposedly built for them are not safe courtesy of the previously mentioned, morally challenged drivers. 

The roads tell us a lot about the hierarchies at work in Kenya and the relative values they place of the time and lives as well as the fortunes of the various classes of people. At the very top is the political class and those riding on their coat tails, from government officials to the wannabe county potentates. Everything stops for them. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of their dash to riches. Ours is a system that rewards the unscrupulous and punishes those who follow the rules. To ascertain this, one need only look at the records and bank accounts of the Honourable men and women in our houses of Parliament.

Our middle classes are often too busy trying to stay on the road to nowhere in particular and too busy trying to get ahead to make any noise about the state of affairs. They are grateful for any crumbs they get, any gaps they are allowed in the snarl-up that is life in Kenya even as their prospects of actually making it recede. So, for example, they will cheer the rise of property prices, much of which is driven by the money-laundering of the elite, even as that very rise ensures that their dreams of one day owning their own home will remain just that. Accept and move on, they say. Don’t complain too loudly and if you do, do it on Twitter. There’s no point in resisting the predations of the political and economic roadhogs, those of matatu-esque dispositions.

Of course, at the very bottom of the pile are the poor, whose presence on the Kenyan road is barely tolerated despite their vastly superior numbers. We prefer that they keep out of sight, stick to the places we have prepared for them. It is they, not the road that is the problem. And when the system crushes them, they die unmourned, blamed for their poverty, for making poor electoral choices, for supposedly not working hard enough or being more enterprising. Only by grouping together and expressing their power through sheer force of numbers can they force their way across. And when periodically their anger spills over in riots and “mass action” they can even take over the streets entirely.

Like the police on our roads, our institutions of accountability simply serve to keep everybody in their proper place. They are there to police the citizens, to clear a path for our betters. While they may express umbrage at the toll that the system takes both in blood and in treasure, the fact is they are its enablers and foot soldiers, constantly on the take, either openly fleecing the citizens or in more subtle ways, pocketing massive salaries for doing little work.

The inequalities on the Kenyan roads, as in Kenyan political and economic life, and the rules and norms that have developed to enforce them, need a radical rethink. We need to redistribute the “burden of risk” across our entire political and economic system.  Today, it is the poor who shoulder the largest proportion of it. The current rules and norms conspire to insulate the wealthier classes from the consequences of bad political and economic choices. During the post-election violence of 2008, for example, I remember the police lining up on the road that separates the gated middle-class housing estates where I live from the Kibera slums. Their overriding objective, it seemed, was to insulate us from the violence of the poor, which violence was a direct consequence of the frustrations and deprivations visited upon them by the system we were all so eager to uphold in the name of peace.

Just as they are on our roads, our high and mighty are protected from suffering the consequences of their theft and incompetence. They are, generally speaking, safe from the anger generated by the meltdown of the education system, the soaring inflation, the rising insecurity. Our system allows them to proceed with their lives in happy-go-lucky fashion, oblivious to the misery they continue to inflict. And it tells us that we should be horrified when someone breaks the mold to take a cane to Raila Odinga or throw shoes at President Uhuru Kenyatta. We think it unbecoming. Our rulers should only see our happy faces as we dance for them and pretend everything is hunky-dory.

When the ugly violence that the poor have to navigate on a daily basis suddenly and unexpectedly appears in an upmarket mall, we mourn for the victims. But even then, we continue to be blind to other deaths. Who laments the dead of Mpeketoni or the murdered of Garissa? Where are the monuments to mark the victims of Bungoma? Why are these not as deserving of remembrance as the victims of Westgate? As we return to our malls in supposed defiance of the terrorist assault on our way of life, do we see the suffering of those who cannot afford to indulge in the illusion of safety, for whom poverty, violence and death continue to be the stuff of everyday life? What would we do different if we did?

A village in the Netherlands that had a problem with speeding traffic passing a primary school decided to solve this, not by erecting larger fences, but by extending the playground across the street. Suddenly confronted with the risks of their behaviour, drivers spontaneously reduced speeds. We too similarly need to dismantle the system of privileges and entitlement that keeps us separate from and oblivious to the risks of our political and economic behaviour. We need to re-imagine and recreate Kenya as a “shared space” where everyone, not just the poor, takes their fair share of the risks and everyone, not just the powerful, enjoys their fair share of the benefits.

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