It is raining again in Nairobi. This is the season of the long rains that gather in the afternoon and often continue into the night. Now the sky is dark grey at 3 pm forecasting the coming storm. After a full-day workshop for secondary students from Good Samaritan we leave St. Teresa`s Church in Mathare Valley at 6 pm.
As we drive through Mathare we are fortunate to be in a van because cars are wheel-deep in the rushing muddy waters. One man pulling a handcart is struggling to keep his heavy load moving against the flood. No one offers to help and we see him as the back of his cart is pulled down by the strong current and near collapse. Another brave traveler rides a bicycle half submerged in water. Peddling is not an easy task. The challenge for him and for hundreds of drivers is that the water hides the enormous potholes that can swallow and strand a vehicle. In this sea of cars, brightly colored buses with religious and pop cultural images and slogans honk and pass. These vehicles, decorated with blinking colored lights to gain attention and improve status, ferry thousands of workers on their way home. The matatu drivers are fearless with aggressive moves pushing into other lanes with horns honking and shouts from the conductors who help them negotiate the curbs and sidewalks as they stop to pick up passengers and push ahead often without any concern for other drivers or traffic laws. They are the reigning pirates in this sea of vehicles. The water does not impede their reckless speed and creative routes around the impediments that would cause other drivers to pause.
The road is lined with men and women, young and old, in suits and work clothes, walking back from their jobs in the city center to their homes in the slums. Many trudge through the water as if it were just another day and the rain was no different than sunshine or clouds. Some women have plastic bags over their heads. The lucky ones have an umbrella.
The multiple lanes of traffic and buses, cars and vans maneuver in their strategy to move forward separated by inches. The sidewalks also offer space for one or two extra lanes. Drivers who are window to window talk to each other and share information on road conditions ahead. A heavy pounding downpour brings traffic to a halt in many areas, especially around the city centre. We are among the thousands of commuters who are caught in this weather event. Roads are closed and we sit for more than two hours waiting to enter a roundabout and moving only a few feet ahead. It is amazing that the drivers in the multiple lanes of cars are so patient sitting for hours without moving. Only an occasional call of horns signals some brief irritation. The matatus and buses have long ago moved ahead and left the more conventional vehicles behind to wait in this impromptu parking lot.
The next day the newspapers called it “havoc” and included photos of rescue efforts at a collapsed building. In the informal settlements around the city, shoddy construction is no match for the strength of the muddy polluted waters. A stone retaining wall falls on unsuspecting people taking shelter from the storm and kills four. A building that has been quickly constructed of inadequate supporting steel and sub-standard concrete collapses on the occupants and takes many more lives. These makeshift buildings shelter the increasing number of people pouring into the city, those families who can only pay a small rent for one or two rooms. Contractors and landlords exploit the need for shelter. These floods emphasize the problem that lurks in the structure of many of many low-rent residential buildings.
The floods are common in the season of long rains and the citizens of Nairobi, from the wealthy who live in gated mansions within lofty estates to the stoic residents of the crowded valley slums, are used to it. Yet the floods are worse in the informal settlements where tin houses do not keep out the rain and garbage-clogged drains send sewer water into homes and businesses. The rain falls on everyone but for the poor the consequences of the flooding are more severe.