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At a Kenyan crossroads, one cop does it right

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 2002



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.

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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.

Protectors?

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."

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