“Mbote and the Superhighway” by Rinda Hayes
“Ah, Mama Rinda, I’m told there is a new dual carriageway, a superhighway! Kenya has entered the modern world”, says our long- time driver, Mbote. His big smile is unleashed and there is a twinkle in his eye. “We will try it today for the first time.”
I’m game. I’ve been astonished much of this trip by the changes rocking Kenya, as they are much of Africa. When I first came here, isolated by the 12,000 miles between me and home, I was on a different planet. But technology has brought Kenya into the modern world. In fact it was here that the very first mobile banking was “invented”; Mpesa was moving money long before PayPal or Venmo. But that’s another story. All I know is that in 13 years I’ve gone from standing outside on a dark night, holding a big brick of a satellite phone trying to reach home for a spotty conversation, to texting and even video calling my children on a regular basis. Photos fly back and forth between us. I can even see my nieces wedding as it happens! It’s a terrible temptation to remain with one foot in each world.
Yet Kenya is still Kenya. We first drove out to our work area in the traffic mayhem that both terrifies and entertains: lorries (semi- trucks) towering above us, new lanes being created by the moment, as the huge, clanging, banging organism of snarled traffic moves itself – bicycles loaded with jerrycans of water, a herd of goats, a motorcycle with four children clinging tight. All you can do is watch with wonder.
After ten years of being driven by Mbote, my terror has subsided, but my wonder hasn’t. The hum of humanity. I love to watch it.
The thought of the “superhighway” intrigues me, as it does Mbote. In the wild, Mbote can spot a cheetah half a mile away, but now he needs to learn to read freeway signs. Clutching the wheel, Mbote takes an entry ramp for the first time. “I don’t know where we will get off, Mama Rinda!! But I trust I can find my way.” And we are on it. A real freeway. Multiple lanes going both ways, a cement divider in the middle.
We creep along, the only car in sight. Instinct makes we want to urge Mbote to step on the gas! Isn’t that what we do when we enter a freeway? I ask about the speed regulation. Can’t we go faster? “Ah, I’m taking it all in, Mama Rinda! Look at these painted lines and these flyovers (over-pass bridges for walking traffic and animals – truly amazing, since crossing the highway is usually a life threatening experience). And look at that new train station!” His grin expands even more. “Welcome to the new Kenya. And thank you to the Chinese who helped a lot! I’m flabbergasted.”
We go a long time without an exit. Mbote gets nervous. “I don’t know how we get off this,” he says. “I’m confused!”, which was shocking, because Mbote is NEVER confused. And then, there it is – an exit, marked with the green sign, putting us right at the Mombasa Port. “I know where I am now, Mama Rinda. All is well”, he says with a sigh.
I’m proud of him. I don’t like the idea of him looking for exit signs on the freeway instead of cheetahs in the wild, but this versatility will serve him well.
I’m proud and he’s proud. He did it. He risked the unknown. Clearly not many drivers have yet, as the superhighway remained pretty much empty the whole time we were on it, not counting a bull that was resting on the center median and some boda bodas (motorcycles) that were headed the wrong way.
We do that. We step into the unknown every time we come here. Our students do it every time they head out of their rural villages and dare go to Nairobi to find their universities. It is risky business. The urge to turn around is great. But like Mbote, we must make the leap, dancing into the future with curious, wild abandon.
Rinda Hayes is the co-founder and director of Kenya Keys. She has dedicated the last 13 years of her life to developing and growing this amazing organization, changing the lives of hundreds of young Kenyan students, their families, and their communities.
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