you fumble and step on the brake paddle.
“Handbrake surely Nani… wewe handbrake yako iko kwa mguu?”
if only you could drive with your mouth… anyway, you find the handbrake, it’s on your left, you pull it.
“Aya weka Gear 1”
A beginner you are, you remove your eyes from the road and stare at the long gear stick with wide eyes like you are studying the map of India. It’s not one of those short fancy gears stick you see on saloon cars, this one is some long fimbo ya nyayo carved in Japan, with some rubber at the tip with engravings of R-1-2-N-3-N-4-5-6.
Your first day for practical driving lessons are always full of anxiety, you just want to jump into the driver’s seat and move that thing, if you can of course, but you can’t. The instructor is more concerned about teaching you parts of the vehicle dashboard. All you can hear is a buzz, like a bee singing on your ears; Voltmeter, speedometer, Fuel gauge, tachometer, odometer, warning lights, these explanations fall on deaf ears. You are waiting for that last word “Let’s go.” It comes nevertheless. But it is your first day, so the only thing you learn for that day is how to start a car, and how to turn off the engine. It’s easy. Like teaching your small boy how to pee. Something like
“Hey Tobby, you hold your penis like this…”
“No no no… not like that, use your two fingers and one thumb…yes like that… your left hand please Tobby my boy, your right hand is for eating daddy, right?” (Tobby is holding a slice of bread and penis on the same hand.
“Now Tobby, point the penis to the direction you want the urine to go… yes…yes…yes… good boy! Raise it up a bit… one direction… No No No Tobby, not on my feet… come on baby” And Tobby learns how to pee. Simple. It’s a graduation for the boy, no gown is needed to celebrate that pass out, probably the next lesson is to get Tobby to direct his efforts on grass and not your feet. After learning how to start a car, I would have to walk 8 kilometers from Mlimani to Nyamasaria, a 45-minute walk, hoping that the lesson for the following day was not going to be “How to open a bonnet.” Don’t ask why I had to do that walk, My broke story is for another day. I just finished college.
Welcome to AA driving class. Now it didn’t matter whether you wanted to drive a Suzuki alto (the distant brother of TukTuk) after obtaining your BCE license, or wanted to add driving on top of your mjengo skills, or maybe some distant relative of yours in KDF told you that having a driver’s license is an added advantage during recruitment (for your information, anything apart from your Secondary certificate and birth certificate is sinful to carry to a recruitment; you can find the nearest bush and stash your other documents, retrieve them after the exercise). What mattered at the driving school is that you had to learn to drive that lorry; Dongfeng.
And the introduction to our first Road driving on Dongfeng was simple.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Dongfeng; if you can’t ride this machine, you cannot ride anything.”
I was standing between two ladies, one who was gripping both her cheeks with her teeth from inside her mouth, eye registration: Bored to death! For any normal lady this lorry could piss you off. The other lady on my left seemed calm, she looked like the adventurous type, the ‘bring it on baby’ type, they are the kind of women who drive with their elbows out of the window (it’s an offense by the way), yes, the impatient ones who follow behind an ambulance like they were driving a chase car after you’ve given way on Mombasa road. You are stuck on the jam trying to figure out if ambulances get accompanied by chase cars lately, you’ve been played.
Dongfeng was a replica of a military truck, the kind you see on Smithsonian documentaries on World War II; the truck even had a moustache; some two headlights on both sides that you would think got displaced during assembling. So, we would all be asked to sit at the back, as one student driver takes the wheel. There is no seat at the back, they are two long metallic benches on both sides of the truck, too stiff you would feel your ischial tuberosity. The front cabin itself is so high, with only one-stepping case and no grab bar, you’ll have to hold on the seats to climb up. As you settle and close the door, you need to reinforce it with a manual lock, like the one you use at home to lock your front door. This is Dongfeng, this must surely have been a gift from the queen from Britain after that war with Hitler.
You take the wheel, the student wears the seat belt, the teacher doesn’t. in your head you are wondering, anyway, if things go bad now that he’s not wearing his seatbelt, can he jump from his seat to yours and take control of the lorry, sit on you perhaps? Ours is a long driving stretch on Kisumu-Busia highway. A session on the wheel would last about 15 minutes. Maintaining your lane on the road is obviously a big deal, the instructor is always on your steering, it pisses you off especially when you feel like you are doing things right. Just when you start getting excited and put on some acceleration, there he goes “Acha Mafuta!”
So, you stop accelerating.
“Brake! Brake! Brake!”
You step on it. You hear shouts from the back. “Wewe! Sisi sio mzigo” somebody must have hit his head well on the back there. Nevertheless, aluta continua.
You should have stepped on it a big lightly though, you were not stopping the lorry, just slowing down. For most part of the drive in your first days, you feel like you are a sitting duck on the driver’s seat, it’s the instructor driving from the passenger seat, he trusts you with nothing. So as he tells you to move to gear 2, he makes sure you get there, his palm on top of yours as you push the gear stick, and you have to get it well, it’s not your normal lorry, the gear stick has to reach the very end, anyone with prior experience of preparing mass ugali would be well off. You know the ugali you cook for 30 people? That one which requires some push ups before commencing, ask Omwami.
With time you’ll gain the instructor’s confidence though. Even the lady who came to drive with heels on the first day, gets better, by the fourth week both of you are ready for the final drive test.
The rumors fly around, in hushed tones; if you won’t bribe, you won’t drive.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at the board or at the wheel, the police must eat if you want to pass your final test. The money is collected by the instructor who is wearing an attitude of ‘don’t worry if you don’t have, you can tell that to the ofisa after he has failed you.’ Therefore 2000 shillings it is, to blindfold the inspection officer not to see the mistake you have not committed yet.
Driving test day, my confidence was on another level. This is a prepaid tender, but then again you tell yourself not to be overconfident. What if the money never reached the askari? Or maybe Ogutu, the instructor didn’t submit everything, of course he couldn’t, for all I knew, that money is carefully shared between the inspection officers and them. Then there were some two who had not paid their chai, and I was wondering if the officers could decide to give us a blanket punishment for being wagumu.
The kiama time comes.
The officer, a police inspector, judging by the two military pattern stars on his badge calls me to the cabin, and I take the driver’s seat, he’s seated on the passenger’s seat already. Honestly, he doesn’t look amused or anything close to someone who has received his fair share of my ‘contribution.’
That scared some poop out of me.
I was used to seeing smiles on people when you patted them on the back. At least show some appreciation, like someone who received. Even traffic police salute motorists because those are their primary employees, paying them tax-free money. Some little courtesy from the inspector would have gone a long way.
I close the door. The officer is doing some writing on a sheet with my name on it. I’m silent. I’m having a throat tickle, a cough from nowhere is trying to find itself out of me, I try to resist the temptation. Aheem!
But not just finally yet. A question crosses my mind. Am I supposed to wear the seat belt before or after starting the vehicle? Anyway, I decide to wear the seatbelt as the officer goes “Utawasha gari ama ni mchezo uko nayo?”
So I drop the seatbelt, step on the clutch with my left foot, and brake with my right foot, turn on the ignition and VROOM! We are on.
I get back to the seat belt, and for some reason the seatbelt tongue is refusing to fit in the buckle. I raise my head to find the officer staring at me with a blank look, like he does not understand what I’m trying to do. In the back of his head I knew he was wondering what else I could do if I could not tie a seatbelt successfully. By the time I realized I had been placing the tongue on the wrong hole, the passenger’s buckle, he had asked me to start moving the vehicle.
The rest was easy. Clutch, gear one, release clutch slowly, as you accelerate.
“Simamisha gari” I stop.
“Weka neutral” shak shak shak! Neutral.
“Peleka reverse” shak shak shaaak! Engage reverse gear, release clutch slowly, accelerate, we are on reverse. Correct. My sheet is getting filled pretty well, I thought to myself, the officer could not stop writing.
“Peleka gari huko” he points me to an elevated area where they do the hill test. Easy.
They say it’s the hardest but I had mastered my art, his presence was no longer scary. Afterall he was asking me some stupid questions like whose car I was going to drive after getting license, I couldn’t wait to get it over with.
The hill climb is done, he asks me to drive the lorry to our initial spot. When I’m there, I engage the clutch and brake, bring the gear to Neutral and look at the officer who smiles and asks me “Sasa wewe, unataka kuniua?”
What is wrong with this guy?
“Sorry, I don’t understand” I reply with the same smile, assuming this is one of the normal police jokes, maybe he meant ‘kumuua na njaa.’ And I was silently promising myself that if this guy asked me for anything other than my Id number, I was going to ask him to go fuck himself, for real, I’m not sure if I could bring myself to say that though. So I just looked straight at him.
“Wewe umewahiskia kitu inaitwa handbrake kwa gari?” he asks me pointing at the handbrake.
The cold that hit my face. God save the King!
I had been confidently driving with the handbrakes on.
“Uko na bahati ulilipa insurance.”