Thursday, September 17, 2009

True Story: Accident on Plainsview

Last night after work I ran out to the store to pick up a few luxury dinner items: lettuce, milk, chapatis, sour cream, and cookies. At the time, my wife Lucy was in the house waiting for a mkokoteni cart of water to be delivered (we haven't had running water in one month). Anyway, on the way back from the store, I noticed headlights zig zagging back and forth across the road. The lights were traveling in the wrong lane and coming directly towards me. I started honking, but to no avail. The white Toyota saloon car rammed the front right side of my Toyota Prado. Our two Toyotas glanced off each other and came to a screeching halt in the the middle of Plainsview Road, just a few blocks from where we live.

(Brief background: In Kenya, whenever there is a motor vehicle accident, the cars are not supposed to move. Ideally the vehicles should remain in the middle of the road or wherever they are stopped until the police arrive. In theory, the police will survey the scene of the accident and then decide who is responsible for the damages. At that point, the drivers of the vehicles can settle the matter privately by handing over the necessary cash. Alternatively the drivers can submit claims to their insurance companies or continuing arguing it out at the police station.)

So our two vehicles sat sideways in the middle of the road, blocking several large matatus and an
onslaught of evening commuters. A large and lumbering man stepped out of the white Toyota along with several of his companions. The large man's speech was slurred and his breath smelled heavily of alcohol. As the traffic backed up, the crowd around us continued to grow. Buses and passenger cars were honking at us to get out of the road, matatu conductors (worried they would lose passengers and money waiting in the jam) urged us to settle the matter quickly and move our cars, young men came running to the scene offering to arbitrate for a fee. One gentleman advised me to call the police.

“What's the phone number?”, I asked. After some consultation, I was told “999.” My hands fumbled with the phone. Three attempts and no answer. The police were nowhere to be found. Meanwhile bus drivers and matatu conductors continued to shout and approach us angrily, grabbing shirt tails and pushing us towards our vehicles.

Overwhelmed, I got back into the car, the car door still open. I called Lucy. “Sweetheart, I've been in an accident, but I'm O.K. Some drunk guy hit me and now there is a big commotion.”
I decided to pull the car up on to the curb to allow the menacing matatu drivers to pass. As I started to move slowly to the left, a strong hand grabbed my arm, pulling me from the car. I tried to slam the door, but now two people were there, prying it open. A hand ripped the keys out of the ignition. A short wrestling match ensued. I was on the pavement and then up again, held firmly by one of the drunk drivers companions. People began to shout:

“Pay 5,000 and you can settle it.”
“I witnessed the accident, wait for the police.”
“This driver is drunk.”
“Give him the money and then you both can leave.”
“One of the keys has fallen to the ground.”
Several people surrounded me, demanding that I pay the the drunk driver in cash for hitting his car.

A large group then gathered, offering all types of advice. A smartly dressed man pulled me aside, a neighbor I'd never met. “Don't worry, I saw the whole thing.”

The rotund man declared, “So what if maybe I am drunk? I am the local Councilor. These people voted for me. They are my witnesses. Just pay me and we can go. . .I am the local Councilor.” (Note: City Councilors in Nairobi are notorious for being some of the most corrupt, violent, and evil people in the country).

Incensed, I joked with some of the bystanders. “So being a Councilor means someone can drive drunk, crash into cars, and then demand that they pay. Is that what a Councilor does? No wonder tuko na shida. Hakuna maji, hakuna stima, hakuna kazi (No wonder there is no water, electricity, or jobs).”

Lucy arrived on the scene, debating the drunken driver's companions in rapid Kiswahili. “He was
driving drunk, on the wrong side of the road. He has stolen the car keys. How can you demand money? We are waiting for the police.” She copied the license and registration numbers as our neighbor snapped photos of the scene. . .

Initially we thought that many of the young men who had rushed to the scene were hooligans affiliated with the City Councilor. Slowly things calmed down, however, and the young men began to laugh at the hilarity of it all. My car was just scratched, but the other had a busted headlight, large dents, and a popped hood. The drunk man and his companions became convinced that they should leave. We exchanged information, agreeing that there was “no agreement and no one would pay anything. Let the insurance companies sort it out.” The drunk driver gave his official name as “mjomba” (uncle). The other vehicle left.

Lucy and I were advised to file a report with the police. Since he was a Councilor, the other driver could go to the police later, after sobering up, and push his own story through the authorities.

We went to Industrial Area Police Station straight away. The electricity was out and the traffic officers on duty were “on duty somewhere else” and “should be back within the hour.” Lucy's uncle came and met us at the station to assist. As we waited a violent woman was restrained and locked up. Two and a half hours later the traffic police arrived. The officer who filed the report was very nice. He offered us a cup of tea and shared a few jokes. He inspected the car. Then he wrote our particulars on the back of a piece of paper and posted it along with other notes to dirty Styrofoam hanging on the wall. “I can't stand impunity. Let this Councilor come and give his own story and we'll rip his head off.”

− So ended Part One of our Monday evening adventure. (10th August, 2009)

Many thanks for your continued prayers. Despite the scary nature of this incident, Lucy and I are both very well. We thank God for protecting us, watching over us, and sending a neighbor to help. We now have some new friends at the police station, and I have the happy tale of having wrestled with a drunken City Councilor.

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