At a Kenyan crossroads, one cop does it right
NAIROBI, KENYA — It's morning rush hour at the Gitanga-James Gichuru junction, and Cpl. John Wanyonyi is standing in the bucketing rain yelling at a school bus driver to move it. A group of men pushing a broken-down Toyota nearly plow into a Range Rover making a right turn. Corporal Wanyonyi raises an eyebrow and calmly turns his attention to a line of minivans stalled in the middle of the road.
An elderly woman in a waiting Pajero waves; a cyclist gives the cop a thumbs-up as he speeds by. Wanyonyi, the man voted by local radio station KISS 100 FM as Nairobi's "favorite traffic man," takes off his cap, mops rain and sweat from the top of his head with a yellow handkerchief, then quickly thrusts his hands toward a dilapidated Suzuki coming right at him.
"Stop, for goodness' sake!" he cries in Swahili. "Lets get it together."
All the cop is doing, really, is his job. But, in a country where over the last quarter century corruption has taken over almost every sector of society, this alone is something to be noted.
The safety of Wanyonyi's junction - once a notorious death trap - is a marked contrast to the rest of Kenya's road and traffic systems.
Kenya today has the highest accident rate in the world, according to the Automobile Association of Kenya, with 510 fatal accidents occurring for every 100,000 motor vehicles on the road. The number of amputees from road accidents here rivals the combined number of war amputees in mine-filled neighboring countries Somalia and Sudan.
Roads are in terrible disrepair: highways simply disappear mid-voyage, potholes are everywhere, and donor funds for rebuilding the infrastructure routinely find their way to private accounts. Old, dysfunctional cars rule the roads; street signs and lights are ignored; street lamps don't work; and speed limits, if they exist, are never enforced.
The traffic police, who, by definition, are supposed to police the traffic, only make it all worse. A recent report by the police department's anticorruption unit found the division riddled with corruption and lack of professionalism. The report notes low salaries (as low as $50 a month), lack of transportation (which forces cops to hitch rides to work), and a lack of basic equipment (like speed guns) as just a few of the problems which have led to the "negative work ethics, apathy, and disillusion," found throughout the force. It is not unusual, according to the report, to find roadblocks erected purposely to extract bribes from motorists - bribes which are then distributed upward.
The international corruption watchdog group Transparency International (TI) recently listed the Kenyan police traffic department as among the country's most corrupt bodies - a dubious distinction in a nation TI regularly rates one of the world's 10 most corrupt.
And then there is Wanyonyi. With his intense concentration, keen pride in his profession, and growing number of thankful fans, this 25-year veteran of the city's roundabouts has become a Nairobi institution. Wanyonyi's junction, to which he has reported at 6:30 a.m. sharp for the past 10 years, is "probably the most complicated in town," he says with a small grin.
But he can handle it. "I was on the Jogoo road junction for six years. A simple T-junction," he explains. "I was in training for the big time."
"Before we sent Wanyonyi over there, no one knew they were supposed to stop at the junction, even though there is traffic coming from four directions," says Chief Traffic Inspector Elija Mwangi, Wanyonyi's direct superior. "The number of accidents at the junction has been lowered significantly."
A few years back, the local branch of Rotary International gave Wanyonyi their "Service Above Self" award, citing his dedication to the profession of policing and hard work. He still wears the club's shiny "Award for Excellence" pin proudly on his sleeve. KISS 100 FM, meanwhile, awarded the father of seven with $300 - more than three times his monthly salary - and put him on its morning show. His entire extended family gathered around one radio to hear him. "They were so proud," he admits. The traffic department has promised him a promotion, but so far this has been mired in bureaucracy.
The road and traffic systems are not the only things that have deteriorated in Kenya over the years. When President Daniel arap Moi came to power in 1978, water ran from the taps, electricity went on when a switch was flicked, trash was collected, jobs were available, wages were sufficient to buy food for the whole family, and one could sleep at night without fear of attack by gangs wielding AK-47s, old-timers say. Since then, long years of misrule and corruption have seen infrastructure fall apart and the majority of the population become as poor as their leaders are rich.
According to World Bank figures, the average Kenyan earns just $350 a year - the same wage as when the country became independent in 1963 - and more than 56 percent of Kenyans live on the equivalent of 3 cents a day. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank, tired of having their funds siphoned off to private accounts, have withheld aid here for the better part of 10 years, refusing to give the country any more money until the government implements anticorruption measures.
Many Kenyans blame President Moi for the state of affairs - and with elections coming up next month, the country seems poised to vote for a change. Barred by the Constitution from running for office again, Mr. Moi has hand-picked his successor: Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country's independence leader. While Mr. Kenyatta is relatively little known to the public and not disliked, political analysts say he will lose to the opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki simply because he is backed by Moi.
Sitting in his office beneath a poster that reads "It is your right to be served - don't give a bribe," Bernard Mucheke, the assistant commissioner of police in charge of traffic, says he's not allowed to comment on the country's current political situation. "But it seems the public is becoming more enlightened and less tolerant of wrongdoings."
Still, he can talk about traffic cops. "We have many good cops like Wanyonyi," says Mr. Mucheke, and pauses. "There is one at the Buru Buru junction for example. But we need more change."
"Wanyonyi is a good man," says Boniface Jenga, who has been selling newspapers at the Gitanga-James Gichuru junction for as long as he can remember. "Other cops don't care and they create very much confusion. But Wanyonyi will even stay here till 9 p.m. if there is a jam. This junction is a whole new place since he arrived. Almost no terrible accidents at all.
"Kenya needs someone who is willing to stay at work late," says Mr. Jenga. "If one cop can make a difference at the junction, then maybe one new president can make a difference in the whole country." Come back after the elections, he suggests, and "maybe we will have sidewalks here. Anything can happen."
At a junction like his, Wanyonyi has no time to talk politics. "I love my job," he says simply, motioning for a milk truck to pass. "Enda! Enda! [Go! Go!]" he screeches in Swahili. "I earn something for my children and I am happy to see people get to work safely and fast," he says. "That's enough."