Mediocrity in Nairobi

Warning: A bit of scatology… ok, a lot of scatology

The other day a sewer burst on the street where I live. The manhole overflowed and threw aside its cover. Human excrement piled around it and the vile-smelling water spilled onto the street. Walking back home from an early-morning engagement, I saw pedestrians on that side of the road skipping from stone to stone and pulling dance-like stunts to avoid being splashed with sewage by matatus.

It took three days for Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) employees to show up and demolish the manhole, leaving a gaping hole in the makeshift sidewalk. It took them a week to put in a concrete enclosure for a new manhole. And it took two more weeks for them to cover it.

At some point, they even blocked the sewer at the upstream manhole, turning the street into a reeking river of sewage again. You can still spot specks of tissue paper stuck to the rocks on the rocky path where the sidewalk should be, even after the recent torrential rains.

The repaired manhole itself is a sight to behold, or maybe not. It sticks out of the sidewalk like those stumps you would be told to uproot if you were naughty in school. Pedestrians have to walk around it, either on the road, risking their lives, or in the drainage ditch on the other side, which is impractical.

That notwithstanding, they left a little circular trench around the manhole. Sometimes, when the residents of the neighbourhood are especially active in their small rooms – like when they get back home from work in the late afternoons – some sewage spills from the seam under the manhole cover, forming a nice little stinking moat for all and sundry to behold.

I’m sorry if this gross description revolts you. But I’m certain that, if you have gotten this far, you will know what I mean when I say Nairobi has made a deal with mediocrity. I have used this example because it’s more dramatic, but I could have used a million others. This city groans under the weight of poor workmanship. Public infrastructure is of such low quality, it’s a wonder the city still functions at all.

When streets are repaired, piles of soil and gangue are left on the sides forever. Every now and then a team comes to clean up but somehow manages to clean up only half and mess up the other so bad, you wonder why they started at all. How do they even then get back home and tell their wives (or husbands), “Honey, I have been at work all day” without feeling a tinge of shame?

With few exceptions, roads in Nairobi don’t have sidewalks – pedestrians have to make do with pockmarked roadside paths that get muddy in the rainy season and dusty in the dry. And as for those exceptions, most are either too narrow, too uneven or too inconvenient to even qualify as sidewalks.

Most of Kenya Power’s electricity poles are not vertically straight. They invariably lean at some angle closer to the ground than they should. The water company’s water pipes go all over the place. Bridges here have no railings, or they have rusted out excuses for railings.

I could go on and on. But you get the point. Or maybe you’ve had the point all along and are just not as impressed by it as you are – like me – by the resignation with which we, long-suffering Nairobians, accept the situation.

The question I often ask myself is this: why would any public works be done at all if the result ends up being but a marginal improvement on a dire situation? I thought marginal improvements were reserved for already excellent facilities.

Mediocrity is costly. Something is only as good as its weakest points, and mediocre workmanship is all weak points and no strong ones. Mediocre workmanship doesn’t last. It needs to be fixed all the time. And this being Kenya, the products of mediocre workmanship, once broken, take forever to be fixed. And when they are fixed, they end up worse because the repair work is just as mediocre as its predecessors.

After a long time of trying to wrap my head around this phenomenon, I can only come up with three possible explanations. Either those saddle us with their mediocrity know the cost and wish to cash in on it with repeated contracts to fix their mediocrity; or they don’t know the cost but cut corners to cash in on the budget; or, by the time their get their budgetary allocation, the money they receive is not enough for what they need to do because someone has already slashed part of it. Clap for me. Now I know what every Kenyan knows.

Wait. Now that I think of it, there could be a fourth possibility: a combination of all the above plus a general indifference, or even complicity, on the part of Nairobians. Now I think I know more. Don’t clap for me.

And, before I close off, I know I have spoken only about Nairobi. But this phenomenon is to be witnessed across the country. Kisumu, my hometown, is one large dump yard. If you picked the city, turned it upside down and gave it a little flick, even the ash from a colonial policeman’s cigarette would fall from some seam. Mombasa… I won’t even talk about Mombasa. There is something in the Kenyan psyche that makes us quite ready to coexist rather comfortably with dirt and mediocrity.

Whatever the case, we need to style up. This mediocrity is bogging us down and frustrating lives that could otherwise be just a little better. We already have enough worries trying to get food on our tables, and ourselves to those same tables, every day. A nice walk along a nice sidewalk with no burst sewers and no fear of being fallen on by a slanted electricity pole should be the least we have to ask for. We are human beings after all, not pigs.

Feature image: The Star.

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