Driving While Black (& Female)

Grandama Gathiri was a trendsetter. She was brought up by a mother, my great grandmother, who was a nurse by profession, at a time when many of her counterparts were locked into illiteracy. Gathiri’s dad, in addition to being a carpenter for Kenya Railways, had also been detained by the British Crown  for associating with the dreaded Mau Mau. All these made my mother’s mother a truly cosmopolitan Kenyan; she could draw upon varied experiences: from the countryside to the expanding cities, from 1950’s professionalism to living under the constant threat of colonial military might.

It was no surprise then, that Gathiri owned a vehicle: a red mini Morris. She went through the rigmarole of acquiring a driver’s license and chauffeured herself from place to place. Eventually, so I’ve learned, the vehicle was turned into a taxi. That didn’t last very long. The business went bust. This could have been due to a whole number of reasons – perhaps the driver/operator was skimming off too much for himself and not maintaining the vehicle as needed. Or maybe the Kenyan government cracked down on private taxis, driving them out of business and reducing the competition faced by bigger politically-connected companies.

Decades later, grandma retired and moved to Juja Farm, a former colonial ranch that sustained teeming wildlife. I’d visit during the school holidays in April, August, or December. Part of Juja’s allure was the openness. The land is flatly, sparsely populated by thorny Acacia shrubs, and you can see the horizon all around you for miles and miles. The grassland provided great grazing for grandma’s cattle. I’d team up with a local herdsman, or sometimes just one of the village boys, and we’d walk behind the animals all day. Driving them towards green grass, and making sure they had plenty of waterholes close by in the afternoon.

Githu, one of my herdsmate, lived in grandma’s locality and had known her for a long time. They all called her Wa Njoroge, Njoroge’s mother. My mom’s younger brother, Njoro, was the only one still living with grandma by the time she relocated to Juja. As is customary, grandma became known for the child the community could see. The only additional moniker they gave her had to do with her literacy.

The Harris’s were a white family who lived at the original Juja Farm. Perhaps they’d bought the land from an earlier colonial settler, or maybe they were descendants of previous British settler populations. Grandma came to know them and soon she’d visit to see if my mom had called their house, the only one with a phone line within a 30 mile radius, and left a message. Fellow villagers were astonished to see Gathiri converse with the white people, in English, no less. And so fluently! From then on they called her Nyina wa Njoroge  wa Githungu, Njoroge’s mom who speaks English.

Speaking English was one thing; after all even school teachers did. Driving was quite another. I once narrated to Githu that grandma used to drive. That she had once owned a small red vehicle and she’d get in, turn the ignition, and transport herself from point A to point B. This was too much for Githu. He opposed me categorically, on the simple fact that women could not drive. Githu’s point was not simply that women didn’t get opportunities to drive, but that they were physically, (emotionally?) incapable of driving.

I lived in Ngong, a fairly urbane location so had seen numerous female drivers. My headmistress, Mrs.Murithi, chauffeured herself to school, hours before her husband who worked as the head institutional  administrator arrived. One of my classmates, a biracial kid with an Italian dad, was dropped off and picked up from school by her Meru mother. My grandma’s youngest brother, had married an optician who not only drove to work, but also took us to Juja multiple times. I knew Githu’s argument was false, but I also understand that his immediate surroundings, void of the same experiences I could draw upon, had led him to such conclusions. He vehemently denied the existence of (black) female drivers.

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While generally a somewhat cranky person, I have few pet peeves. I appreciate my own quirks enough to allow others their own strangeness. I often get on pavements and roadways as a pedestrian or cyclist; understandably, I feel very strongly when drivers ignore traffic laws and common road etiquette. My biggest pet peeve is drivers idling their brakes until they come to a final stop right in the middle of a pedestrian walkway. It’s technically illegal, but more importantly, it’s sloppy and rude. Both of which make for dangerous driving. I cannot stand it. It blows my mind that a driver can be so ignorant of the fatal potential that her car holds vis-a-vis cyclists or pedestrians. This action smirks of entitlement, and worse, complete and utter obliviousness. Again, bad, dangerous driving.

I’d just finished going through several hoops in order to renew my expired Florida license in Nebraska. The DMV officials had looked through all my immigration documents, and successfully ascertained I wasn’t one of those immigrants awaiting a deportation trumpet to Mexico, or wherever. It then turned out that I needed to pass a written test. With no prior head’s up, I’d obviously not prepared. Nevertheless, I dove right into it, and dutifully failed. Something about parking uphill when there is or there isn’t a curb. I still don’t get the difference.

24 hours later, armed with about 45 minutes worth of perusing the driver’s manual, plus a practice test, I returned. I felt good about this particular attempt. I’d made efforts to remember the 5 or 6 questions I’d failed the day before, and memorized their answers. I also had my priorities right. My goal was to get through the test; it had nothing to do with how I’d actually behave on Nebraskan roadways. A test is a test; driving is driving. The two entities do not always match up.

I patiently endured my 2 hour wait at the DMV. Where would we be without long waits at virtually all government offices? Imagine delivering services in a way that optimized rush hour, wait times, personnel, and scarce resources. What a lovely dream! My waiting ticket number flashed on the console, and I pulled myself together as I headed to counter #2. I handed over my ticket, immigration documents, plus a bar code receipt from the previous day. The officer in charge then directed me to choose any of the tablet computers lined up against the wall and get started with the written test. I did as instructed. I skipped a few questions, and even guessed one. I was a bit anxious to not fail, once again. In the end, I was happy to find out, I’d answered all but one question correctly. My guess on how many points you stand to lose over a 2 year misdemeanor record was correct. But my response to a question regarding residential area speed limits was not. It took me another 20 minutes to pay the license issuing fee, and I walked out with a paper copy of my DL. Success!

I took O Street back to downtown Lincoln.  At the second pedestrian crosswalk, I noticed an SUV idling its way onto the zebra crossing. The driver was on the phone as she eyed the light ahead so she could take a left turn. I don’t think she even turned towards where I was coming from. In any case, the person sitting beside her on the front passenger seat would have partially blocked her view. There was no other vehicle behind her; if she’d really cared to, she could have backed up and moved away from the pedestrian crossing.

The combo of using a cell phone while driving THEN stopping smack in the middle of a pedestrian walkway was just too much for me. I went around the back of her silver Mercury. Emerging from the other side, I approached her open window and said “next time, please don’t stop on a pedestrian crossing!”

Oh my! Me calling her out got her mad. Super mad. She began shouting as I walked away, “excuse me! Excuse me!” I walked on. “What did you say?” I never turned back. I got the feeling that looking back at her would not only dignify her outburst, it would also escalate this interaction. Although I could feel her eyes literally drilling daggers through my back, I forced myself to keep walking forward. My back has never felt so exposed before, and I’ve never wished for a bullet proof vest as I did that afternoon. And yet somehow, I banked on some unspoken honor code that even if she was packing, she’d not shoot me in the back. Talk of clutching at straws. When eventually the lights turned green and she took her left turn, she drove past me on the other side of the road with sneering eyes.

She’d irked me for careless driving, and totally deserved to be told off. In retrospect, however, I should have approached that moment with more humility. Forcing myself into the bubble that constituted hers and her passenger’s personal space, I should have at least excused myself. Not doing so merely rendered her invisible – in the problematic way that women of color in particular, and women generally, are invisible in white male space (basically everywhere). Like Githu, I too was participating in a monologue that underlined women’s incapacity to drive. I call out a lot of bad drivers. Sometimes I flail my arms in frustration, and once in a while I’ve even been know to issue the finger. But I’d be dishonest to claim that my probability of calling out a white male driver is the same as that of me calling out a black female driver. Sometimes it’s worth staying mum and letting go. Or perhaps using sarcasm to thank rude drivers. In any case, I’m now very keen on rewarding good road use. I wave at every driver who’s polite enough to let me past the crosswalk. After all, it’s the little things that count!

 

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Ode to the Wanderlust (Part II)

Uncle Maina, my dad’s youngest sibling, was always a welcome face at home. Having quit high school after about a year or so, he’d made his way into the Dagoretti Abattoir and began earning a living – like most young men in Gikambura. Githinjiro, as the slaughterhouse is called in Gikuyu, has been a permanent fixture of the area’s economy for decades. At least two generations of my dad’s family have channeled their dreams of upward social mobility via the meat processing industry at Dagoretti.

In the late Nineties, Maina would visit once or twice a month – usually on Sunday afternoons. At least some of the time, he’d be relaying messages between my paternal grandparents and my dad. Often enough, however, he’d come to see us on his own volition. He’d usually arrive around  1pm after a 90 minute bike ride from Gikambura. Either my sisters or I would warm whatever had been left behind from lunch earlier and serve him.

In addition to catching up on news from Ocha, the best part of Maina’s visit was that I could access his bike for a few hours. He’d barely have mouthed 2 or 3 spoonful’s of his lunch before I’d be mounting his Black Mamba bike and riding away.

Like many an aspirational young man, back then and even now, his mode of transportation was a big deal. He expressed his increasing liquidity by graduating from a run-of-the-mill road bike to a more specialized racing machine. To be aerodynamically efficient, these bicycles are designed with a low handlebar that forces the rider to crouch low and bend their back. On the streets, kids call them Komes, short for Komereras, a term coined from the Gikuyu word for crouching. Uncle Maina’s Kome was bright yellow; a lean machine that promised speed and luxury for the cyclist.

I decided to give the bike a road test. My parent’s home sits on a ridge opposite a section of the Ngong Forest. From my house, you go down a valley, cross a seasonal stream that is prone to flash flooding as water from the Ngong Hills rushes past, and ascend towards the forest. In the late Nineties through the early 2000s, a frenzy of mining, plus loose – or nearly non-existent – government oversight combined to create a huge environmental disaster: stone quarrying. The local economy certainly benefited from the influx of capital that accompanied the quarry operations. The local population increased due to significant numbers of migrant laborers, creating business opportunities for food processors, private property developers, transportation companies, among others. The cost of these monetary profits, however, was a sharp decline in the biodiversity of the area. Both the indigenous flora and fauna suffered as quarry blasting, earth moving, and the chemical remnants from the nitrate explosives took their toll on the space. Part of the Ngong Reserve had been previously turned into a man-made eucalyptus forest, the rest was still under natural growth. Some of these trees would have been hundreds of years old, supporting a complex ecosystem that disappeared in the span of ten years. In fact, one of the sections that survived the mining onslaught still supports the International Primate Research Institute, hinting at the wildlife that have always lived here.

Smack in the middle of the Ngong Forest Reserve is a murram road that runs from Em Bul Bul town to Rongai, approximately 25km away. It is on this motorway, hedged in on both sides by natural vegetation, that I embarked on my first long distance bike trek. Large sections of the road benefit from a high canopy that kept me cool on an afternoon that was otherwise hot and dusty. Other road users included a few trucks working overtime to ferry quarry chips or building stones, workers walking to/from their weekend shifts at IPRI, and church-goers on their way back home. Much of the road is flat, however, there were a few sections with gentle slopes, followed by sweat-breaking slopes that added to the cardiovascular benefits of this exercise moment. Overall, the experience was heavenly; I could switch off from the school rhythm and concentrate on the bird calls echoing around me, or even the occasional mammal that darted across the road just a few meters ahead of me.

Gataka is an infamous village along this Em Bul Bul – Rongai route. In the late Eighties, residents had already discovered stone mining and were busy supplying to the rest of the region. My dad and a close friend of his have stories of waiting for Gataka building stones at Em Bul Bul, often while enjoying “a cold one.” Gataka is also famous for its breweries; these produce large quantities of the illicit Chang’aa drink – liquor distilled from a mead, or more often, chemically processed using deadly ingredients. On a Sunday afternoon, both aspects of the town’s traits were clearly visible. A few lorries were testament of the continued trade in construction material, just as the staggering men demonstrated that Gataka’s heydays as a Chang’aa den were far from over – despite repeated invocations to that effect by local government officials. The drunks’ verbal outbursts illustrated the well-oiled bribery machine that endowed Ngong’s law enforcement with a gravy train they protected and benefited from.

By the time I got to Rongai, it was almost 5pm. This was a breakthrough because from here the road back to Em Bul Bul was tarmac, but I was still just over halfway done with my journey. Paved road, however, came with a lot more vehicular traffic. I now had to navigate around matatus and buses, no longer having the whole roadway to myself. From Rongai, I passed through Nkoroi, just a valley away from Laiser Hill Academy where an aunt of mine and her husband stayed. It was always a pleasure getting to visit her family; Uncle John was a vibrant man who visibly enjoyed the teaching profession. Their small home library boasted books such as Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta – a staple in studies on Kenyan nationalisms. At the time, reading was the farthest thing on my mind. I was now hell-bent on getting home before it was too dark, let alone before Uncle Maina decided it was time for him to head back to Gikambura.

Past Nkoroi you come to Kiserian, a bustling commercial town with a large livestock market, abbatoir, and high volumes of trade in vegetables. The town sits on one of the many ridges that dot the Rongai to Ngong road – also called route 126. around the town are numerous arable valleys that are permanently watered by streams flowing down from the nearby Ngong Hills.  Beyond Kiserian, I came to Matasia, and could now imagine an end to my bike trek.

Rather than proceed on to Ngong, and use the Veterinary Farm road to get home, I branched off the main road at 46, a spot so-named for mysterious reasons. From here I ventured onto rough dry weather roads, frequently evading piles of rocks placed in large potholes. I got home at dusk to find Maina anxiously awaiting my return. The yellow Kome jubilantly went back to its owner, happy to have survived a rough ride all afternoon. Because his Githinjiro job had an early start the next day, Uncle Maina chose to head back home.

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Remnants of my long ride to Rongai have survived to this day. I still enjoy long distance endurance sports. So much so that I have made a birthday tradition to run as many miles as the number of years I’m celebrating. Last December I clocked 32 miles – a long jog that left my body so sore even my teeth hurt. During the last 8 miles, I was so delirious I imagined getting heckled by a squirrel. I’d stopped smiling at random strangers by around mile 20. I figured I’d much rather conserve my energy; I was only willing to engage with someone who could offer me a treat in treat: pay up or move on!

Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part II)

It is the quirky things like jogging that mark me out as strange. In truth, I discovered long distance running way before I ever traveled out of Kenya. At the Aga Khan Academy, we’d have one day a year dedicated to “torture by running” in the form of a marathon. In retrospect, the distance couldn’t have been more than 5-10km but pounding on pavement with the wrong kind of shoes, under a hot and dusty sun, it certainly felt a lot farther.

In the long run (pun intended), this annual shock therapy got me hooked and during the “off season” I’d do long jogs every Sunday afternoon. It turned out to be a great way for clearing my mind, reflecting on the past seven days, and planning for the week ahead. It was part of a ritual I looked forward to. Sunday morning involved going to mass, and on the way back I’d buy a copy of the Sunday Nation. Once I got home, this would promptly be shared out between my parents, my sisters, my cousin, and I. However, as long as I got to read “Whispers”by Wahome Mutahi and Philip Ochieng’s opinion column, I was good. After lunch, and possibly a movie on one of the national TV stations, NTV, KTN, or KBC, I’d don my neon blue track pants, sneakers, a t-shirt, and head out.

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At the United World College of South East Asia, Singapore, I finally benefited from having a running coach. I trained at Singapore Polytechnic with their track and field team. Our coach, a former member of Singapore’s national running team was great. His skill at encouraging and nurturing the budding runner within me was demonstrated by the meets I competed at, even placing in the top three several times. In 2003, at the end of my first year at UWCSEA I was awarded the “Best Male Athlete” award. That was sweet of the athletics department, to note and encourage my participation in sports, but it was also hilarious. On the one hand, I didn’t think I’d been that awesome on the track. I’d certainly gotten my ass kicked multiple times, but I was approaching the sport as an amateur; I had no plans to go professional. Just training next to future champions was exhilarating enough for me. On the other hand, my award seemed to piss off at least one other runner, personally. Jaffery just could not stomach the idea that I’d received the “Best Athlete” commendation. After the fact, he repeatedly challenged me to a race, or at least to tell him my personal record for a 5K or 10K. He was a sprinter; I was into long distances, the comparison seemed absurd to me. But seeing the teenage envy in his face made the accolade twice as savory.

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Since then, my running has morphed severally. As an assistant teacher at Friends’ Kigama Secondary School in Western Kenya, I was a track and field coach. I would take a group of approximately 10 seventeen to nineteen-year-olds through practice. We’d always begin with some stretching before hitting the road. Those guys were good! I’d have them going uphill, down a valley and then uphill once more and they’d hand it to me, every time. But it was a lot of fun.

In the first two years at college, running took a back burner. I remember going to see the athletics running coach during the first week or so of school and asking how the team conducted practice. When he mentioned time commitment to the tune of 3 hours a day, I ran, not walked, ran out without ever looking back. I certainly spent time pumping iron at the gym (#beachbody), but in the end I’d inevitably return to running. Easton, Pa had several trails around town and those were always fun to explore. When I studied abroad in Sydney for a semester, running by the beach and on the cliff tops made for a great time. Back at Lafayette, I could work out on the new track/football field during the fall, and if the weather was really nice trails by the Delaware river beckoned me into the woods.

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Moving to Miami for my doctoral program, running became a game changer. Writing, a major component of my doctoral work, involved mental gymnastics and a lot of sedentary time at the library or my work desk at home. That was the yin. Running proved to be the yang. Gym shorts, a t-shirt, and my sneakers were all I needed to hit the sidewalks of area code 305. In the beginning I ran mostly in shady, secluded neighborhoods such as Bird Road and South West 57th Ave. Where pavements lacked, I could venture out onto the street because traffic was usually light by the time I went for a run. When I moved apartments and relocated to the much shadier Overtown, I began running to the beach at Virginia Key more often. This meant crossing the Miami CBD and financial district before hitting the Rickenbacker Causeway. A great attraction to this route was that it featured 2 elevated bridges – a welcome addition to the flatland that is Miami.

After not having ran competitively for almost 7 years, I finally signed up for a sprint triathlon in Sebring, Florida. I was so excited for the trip. I looked at various options on how to get there , including renting a car, but I eventually settled for Amtrack. Getting to the train station was a walk and bus ride away. Getting the bike onto the train ended up being a bit of a hassle. It turned out that I should have brought along tools for removing the bike pedals. That had not occurred to me so I hadn’t brought any with me. I forget how the conductor and I eventually got the bike onto the train. I think I ended up having it next to me in the compartment, rather than keeping it in the designated bike carriage. In any case, I made it to Sebring, alighted, and rode to the pre-race sign-in location. After checking in and receiving my gear – bib, t-shirt, and hooks – I indulged in the free pasta meal that was being offered. Nothing fancy; these folks were not out to master Italian cuisine. They simply offered you a nice big chunk of free carbs. On the evening before a 0.3 mile swim, a 14mile bike route, and a 3 mile run, I was not being especially choosy.