Of lights and men

The CBD of Nairobi lacks many things. But one thing it has in abundance: people. People going to work, people working, people running errands, people making noise, people going home, people pickpocketing, people conning, people, people, people. So many people, in fact, that one Spanish visitor to the city in 1989 was very positively enthused and impressed by such a display of human abundance and energy.

Of late, Nairobi has tried, successfully, to obtain an abundance of another item: traffic lights. Now almost any road you walk or drive along, or cross, doesn’t miss lights at either end and at points along its length. They flash and warn, morph and mutate and generally try to instil their artificial sense of order into the many folks that throng the city.

They have been a worthy investment, a vote of confidence in the willingness and ability of the people to use them. We’ve had these lights for some time now. One would think that, by now, we would have integrated them into our social fabric, assimilated them into the very core of our collective character.

But, on a casual stroll through the city, without necessarily having a keen eye, one is immediately struck by how nothing of the sort has happened. In fact, the opposite is more evident. It’s like we have rejected the lights. People still cross streets like they did before, weaving between cars, running across highways, pushing others out of the way.

Motorists still give heed to that ancient maxim ‘go, but ignore the lights.’ Policemen still stand at roundabouts, breathing fumes and braving drizzles, directing traffic in a manner contrary to the lights, instead of making sure people don’t flaunt the lights. It’s a city of confusion, working machines and dumb people. Few people notice this, because few people are looking out for it.

Everyone is concerned about their own convenience, even if in the end that is the very thing that’s compromised, as is often the case. It’s all me, me, me But that’s just a scratch on the surface. The problem of people disregarding traffic lights doesn’t just point to a defect in people’s understanding of traffic rules.

No, it points to a bigger problem, a general deficiency in the character of the people who use these roads, which is, in essence, everyone. So, the problem isn’t just individual, but collective, societal. St Augustine says something to this effect: given a choice between good people and good laws, the former are preferable, for good laws cannot make people good, but good people can make good laws, and follow them.

The defect that afflicts our common character is that we see laws as abstract ideas, theories that have no place in the daily life of an ordinary citizen. Good behaviour means that I don’t steal, I don’t kill and I don’t beat people up. The rest of the stuff is relative.

But is this the way a society ought to behave? Just keep out of ‘trouble’ and you’ll be fine. Aren’t we supposed to look out for those small details that make life more comfortable for others? If the law says ‘red means stop’, doesn’t it make sense to follow that rule.

For instance, what does the motorist who sees red lights and decides to stop lose? Or rather, for the self-centred, what does he gain? Think surety, safety, rest, convenience, order, good manners, patience, refinement… all the essentials that go into thinking more of others than of oneself.

Our ancestors lived in societies that didn’t have the equipment we have today, yet they were more orderly than we are. They had rules and taboos drawing lines of social decorum. These were their lights. And the system worked. They had children growing up with a set of values and principles, which could then be applied in different situations to solve many and varied problems.

The defect of our social character is not that we don’t obey lights. No. It lies in the fact that we lack that character in the first place. We’ve lost the one thing we shouldn’t have. And until we regain that character, we will not be exceptionally known for our law abiding nature. We will not be recognised as the people who actually stop when the lights tell us to.

Feature image: Photo by Jason An on Unsplash.

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