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Nairobi Traffic Jams : 10 Things

Beijing. Lagos. New York. Jakarta. Nairobi. When anthropologists do get to it, science might just confirm our worst fears: That those endless hours spent in traffic irredeemably shaped the human in the 21st Century. And adversely so. But who’s to blame? Granted, from way back, traffic jams are part of the college of any city. Indeed, mass transport of city dwellers is a challenge that every generation has to perennially  contend with. As we learn from  William Phelps Eno, Robert Moses and now the ubiquitous Nairobi traffic jams hawkers cum street vendors, we can blame it on regulation, structure and ingenuity

Traffic jams are a hall mark of inefficiency. They are a rising concern in the 21st century as rising incomes and progressive global urbanization nee road accidents, pollution and the adverse effects of traffic jams such as depression, burn out and loss of man hours. Finding more sustainable ways of mass transportation, such as electric transportation, of future urban dwellers if we desire a green future.  Even if you are part of the climate change deniers gang, you must be persuaded by arguments that bumper to – bumper traffic jams of the are an affront not only to the economic but the also the social and health well-being of the people.

The impact of busy urban life – expected to be the norm this 21st Century – is a point of study as a host of psychiatrists point out that the hustle and bustle of city life aggravates existing psychosocial stress leading to mental health conditions like depression.

Moreover, just like a pea is similar to the next, the phenotype of  the traffic situation of every world city expresses itself in subtle yet richly diverse experiences. Understanding the anatomy of your typical traffic jam might illuminate solution to this menace. Here are 10 things I noted when caught in Nairobi traffic on this day in particularly horrid snarl up. Here is the anatomy of a typical gridlock in my home city, Nairobi. The Kenyan capital and economic San-atrial node of East and Central Africa.

10However bad Nairobi Traffic Jams keep getting, Surprisingly, a Key Life Goal of your Typical Nairobi Resident Remains Buying a Car

If everybody had their way, that would translate to more cars on already crowded roads! It appears  the goal here is not to get home or to work faster courtesy of  “investment”  in the liability of a ‘new’, refurnished and increasingly luxurious Japanese model,  or the ‘barely there’ favorite for young and savvy types: German mid range automobiles. But rather the need here is in making the traffic situation more bearable thanks to the pampering afforded by in car climate control and surround car radio systems.

For as long as Nairob’s default mode of public transport, the Matatu , continues to face as much acclaim as a cultural icon as it does for being pathognomic with all that is wrong with Nairobi, It will keep making much more sense for many city residents to labor towards purchasing a car. As this January 2018 report on Business Daily attests to, this interest isn’t about to wane as the convenience of online shopping and e-commerce continue to take root in Kenya.

9The Phenomenon that Drive Shows on Fm Radio Stations are and their Symbiotic Relationship with Nairobi Traffic Jams

Drive shows in most of Nairobi’s the Fm stations start out as early as 3pm and stretch out to 7pm in the evening. The same can be said of equally popular morning drive shows — some of the residents residing in the outer regions of the greater Nairobi area have to be on the road by 4 am if they are to make it to work by 8 am.

Though the competition among the radio stations is fierce, exemplified by poaching of popular show hosts among the stations, thanks to notorious Nairobi traffic jam, the audience is huge. Too huge for three, four, seven FM stations.

Consider the car radios tuned in thousands of public transport vehicles ferrying tens of thousands of the city’s workforce to and fro the various areas of commerce.  And now with increasing financial inclusiveness, the ever-expanding middle class now with access to car loans to grab cheaper refurbished cars from Dubai, Singapore, Japan , Indonesia and other free trade areas for themselves. To the majority working poor of the city, walking home from industrial area and  listening in on portable Fm radio receivers, Fm enabled mobile phones and hand-held radios. Powerful.

The power comes about as you can’t ignore radio especially, in a multi-ethnic and multilingual world like Kenya.

TV cannot compete with radio in servicing multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic audiences. Gareth Price

Especially given that the comedian vile mouthed radio host combo seems to work so well in Kenya. This tag team whose matrimony was consecrated in the Vegas of marketing world penetrating your peace with stale ethnic stereotyped jokes and sleazy sexualised talk

The radio was shouting at you, pleading with you, and seducing you. David Byrne

All which bring us to our next point.

8 The Nairobi Traffic Flea Market

An African, female TEDx speaker set stage for her talk by telling a story of how she was once caught in traffic in an East African city, she didn’t name the city, when she bought an alphabet letter chart from a hawker for her daughter. Listening to her, I couldn’t help but think that she must have been talking about Nairobi.  Tropical rain or Equator noon sun you will not fail to find enterprising individuals fending by vending a variety of merchandise in Narobi traffic jam.

Almost anything you’d need for your grocery shopping to car accessories to imported Egyptian apples and Israeli citrus fruits to toys shipped in from China, pirated DVDs of the latest Netflix series, productions from the underground local adult entertainment industry and even airtime for your mobile phone.

billboard on one of the city's busiest inlets and hotbet for the infamous Nairobi traffic jams

A billboard advertising a popular show on one of Nairobi’s leading FM stations. Image| Adopt A Light Website

Big business not to be left behind in the selling bonanza spend millions of dollars on gigantic billboards and radio ads on the FM talk shows. Neither is it not uncommon for big brands to carry out product awareness campaigns distributing brochures and fliers in the heavy traffic. First, there is readily available youthful and educated Kenyans courtesy of the rising literacy levels, high levels of urban to rural migration and worrying levels of unemployment. To this, add the almost free time for engagement with a bankable demographic thanks to the long queue of jalopies snaking their way in and out of the city .

7 Just like Malfunctioning I-phones, Traffic Jams make People Late

Lets put it this way: Nairobi traffic affords us, Nairobians, a convenient excuse for our torrid time keeping. If a Nairobian is late, it is most likely out of habit rather than actual happenings. The urban Kenyan proverb that is quoted in the image at the start of this article typifies this bad manners. Niko kwa jam nacome is sheng for “am on my way, but am caught in traffic”. It stems from a verse of a popular Kenyan Hip Hop song where the artiste pleads with the girlfriend to be patient/not to get angry/not think they are getting stood up as the traffic was heavy making him run late.

From songs to boardrooms, expansion of city road infrastructure that peak steam in circa 2010 not withstanding, boda boda or no boda, the traffic excuse has been peddled around so much – even by the leaders of the land –  it has become acceptable part of urban talk. Therefore, as it goes, most Nairobians will expect that you’ll excuse them when they offer traffic as an excuse to their running late. Including even those who punctuality is alien: The type who would be late even to their own funeral.

6 Nairobi Traffic jams: A Battle Pitting Matatu Drivers, Personal Cars, Pedestrians & Boda Boda Riders


The right to road to pedestrians especially so at zebra crossings. However, somethings remain unstated when walking about Nairobi. For example, I have come to learn that we get by faster if I let my woman take the lead. I know that it is ungentlemanly of me, but cars stop unlike when it’s me budging my thorax forward. It is also generally recommended that when crossing, the pedestrian is best advised to look on straight a head. Not many behind the wheels will be keen to watch you shuffle your feet. Finally, whether you are driving in Nairobi or walking, expect the unexpected from the matatu driver, boda boda (motorcycle rider) and the lady drivers. Be warned! Those three ALWAYS have the right of way.

5 Nairobi Traffic jams Ought be A boon for Relationships But …..

Growing up, there were always only two states possible. First, the more common of the two: The air inside my parents no air-conditioning Datsun 120Y is so tense, only occasionally split open by dad’s  mutterings as he battled matatus on our way home. Mutterings that my mum would rather I not hear. My dad’s then intolerance with a chicken crossing the road and insatiable appetite for expletives doing little to ease whatever it was that was eating them up.

Then those rare times when I even got to be treated to chili-lemon juice flavored roast maize bought and brought over from the roadside vendor as we listened to Sundowner on the National English radio service. Listening, but pretending not to listen as dad and mum would poke fun at other couples in situation one above.

Dad would joke how it all might have started: with the mister offering the missus the tired traffic excuse after trooping in late last night smelling of fermented grains. Throwing a knowing look, mum would then point out how hard the missus is pulling the cold treatment by being busy with the sports section of the day’s newspaper, imbibing news that was now 48 hours old. Those were the days when tinted car windows were rare. Oh! those we the days.

4 Beware of Seasonal Traffic variations 

  • Friday afternoon
  • Month end
  • Sudden change of weather especially the occasional unexpected downpour
  • School opening days
  • Big men in town days like international conventions, the president opening parliament , president X leaving for the airport or Raila Odinga going about his thing.
  • Gor Mahia playing AFC leopards in mashemeji derby
  • Nairobi International Trade Fair
  • University Graduations

3 Be Especially Ware of the Big Men

Ambulance, fire fighter engines and politicians are the three groups spared from the irritation of a traffic jam. This could be just one of the reasons why just about everyone dreams of political power this part of the world. Nothing like a free pass from the headache of Nairobi traffic jams.

The bigger the politician, the longer the traffic holdup. Tell you what, watching a 30+ presidential motorcade of German machines wheeze by, nothing speaks of power as it does. It is the little things they say. Such little things probably the reason why no sitting African leader is ever defeated in an election .

2 Every Cloud Does Have a Silver Lining

Traffic jams simply mean that more time is spent from point A to point B. For example, a ten minute ride may stretch out to half hour. This means that there is a chance that 20 minutes of the day may be lost navigating and changing lanes (the faster queue incidentally always happens to be the one you are not on).

Such time could provide an opportune time for  jotting down ideas for your next project – as I did with this article – as you wait for the traffic lights to turn green. Or catching up with the days happenings reading with the convenience of mobile Internet. a selfie here and there never did anyone any harm. However, be careful not to be caught using your mobile phone whilst driving, even in the thick of a Nairobi traffic jam, lest you become fodder for traffic police always lurking about. Worse, is to leave your windows down with valuables is sight or central lock not engaged. Nairobi- Nairobbery is a lucid state and it spares no one.

1 Sit back and Enjoy the Ride 

People watching ? Catching a conversation with a local? Taking in the beauty of the day in the colors of the morning sun?  When taking a matatu, if you get the chance, sit upfront with the driver (usually friendly chaps) who should regale you with urban legends. Enjoy the music from the state of the art sound system fitted in most though it is not uncommon for party music to be blazing from the thousand dollar custom-built music systems on a Monday morning.

Hardly ideal for most people, but tell you what, there is nothing like your favorite song playing over the well woven music system just as you stop comes by. At that moment, the matatu experience comes full circle as it occurs to you that it was much more than music in a hectic morning ride. It was a sound track to your day.

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