one long day
We got up before dawn to go on an early morning game drive in the hopes of seeing the elusive leopard. Alas, we saw no more of him than the day before – a tail wagging teasingly from the foliage while several dozen LandCruisers and matatu-style tour buses jockeyed for position along both shores of the densely wooded ravine where he was ensconced. It was a little after 10am by the time we breakfasted and packed the car for our return journey to Nairobi. It took us the better part of two hours to navigate the conservancy back roads and re-cross a sliver of the Maasai Mara Reserve to arrive at the rough road that would – after 80km – lead to pavement and the highway back to Nairobi. Seven or eight kilometers before we hit pavement the car suddenly swerved. D tried to correct the skid but to no avail. We fishtailed back and forth across the sandy surface before going off the road and crashing into a ditch.
Thankfully no one was seriously injured. Still in shock, we surveyed the damage. It could have been worse, a lot worse, but it could also have been better. The entire left front wheel shaft was crushed and our back left tire was flat, rendering the vehicle undrivable. We called the Embassy and obtained a number for the local police in Narok in the hopes of getting a tow truck and a police report for the insurance company. Unfortunately, the police were less than helpful, which should not have been too surprising given their dubious status as Kenya’s most corrupt and inefficient institution. No one came to the site of the accident during the 3+ hours we spent on the side of the road, even though Narok was only an hour away.
Attempting to arrange a tow through the police also proved a waste of time. Our police contact gave us a number for a tow truck, which after several phone calls turned out to be a tractor so far out in the field that four hours later it was still unavailable. When we called back to say that a tractor was not what we needed, the policeman handed the phone to someone who offered us a tow for an obscenely high sum of money and promptly hung up when we balked at the price. In the meantime, the batteries on our phones died. Fortunately, we had the presence of mind to write down all the numbers we could think of needing, including the one we had looked up for AA-Kenya, a roadside assistance service akin to AAA in the United States.
With no charge left on either of our phones, we stopped waving off passing vehicles that slowed down to ask if everything was ok. Most were matatu vans filled with tourists on their way to the Mara. While it was nice that they stopped, there was little they could do, aside from giving us some water and cookies, as one thoughful couple did. Unexpectedly, all the help we needed arrived in the form of a LandRover that contained a driver/mechanic, painter, and electrician headed back to Nairobi. After two unsuccessful attempts, they managed to haul our car out of the ditch and helped us change the back tire. They also lent us a phone so that we could arrange for AA to tow our car. The only downside was that we’d have to wait for a tow truck to be sent from Nairobi, 155km away.
Although D was hesitant to leave the car on the side of the road, common sense eventually prevailed and we accepted a ride to Narok. Our good Samaritan friends even went so far as to find a Maasai to stand guard over the car. While D charged our phones and tried to identify a reliable auto repair shop in Nairobi, S went to the police station in the hopes of obtaining an accident report. The Traffic Commissioner with whom she met was displeased that he had not been informed earlier (apparently our police contact was in a different department and had not bothered to talk with him) and that we were not following protocol. Despite not owning a vehicle, the police were expected to investigate the scene of the accident and were required to hold the vehicle for inspection prior to issuing a report. We had no intention of spending the night in Narok, much less getting our vehicle impounded, so we dispensed with any further assistance from the local police.
The tow truck arrived just after sundown, laden – to our surprise – with large sacks of charcoal. “We always get charcoal when we have a job outside Nairobi,” the driver offered by way of explanation as he and his assistant slowly unloaded the sacks from the flatbed. Leaving Marni with our luggage in Narok, we squeezed into the cab of the tow truck and returned to the scene of the accident. Not only was the car just as we left it, but the Maasai had also kept his word. As we got out and approached the car, he sprang out of a nearby bush, bow & arrow and spear in hand. It took an hour and a half to load the car onto the flatbed (we can only speculate how long it would have taken had it been left in the ditch). By the time we deposited it at the auto repair shop it was past 3am and we had been awake for nearly 24 hours.
Living in Nairobi for over a year, we’ve grown confident in our ability to navigate everyday life. It is only once we found ourselves in a really tough situation that we faced the reality of not being able to count on the basic infrastructure and professional competence that we take for granted in the United States. At home, we could have towed our car to the nearest city for repairs, resting relatively at ease that it would not be stolen or ransacked for parts. Here, the authorities proved to be more of a hindrance than a source of support, and it was through the benevolence of complete strangers that we received the help we really needed.