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Monday, 19 March, 2001, 16:29 GMT
Money talks for Kenyan drivers
Driving school cars
Driving school fees take you a long way
Daniel Bellamy describes his driving test in Nairobi, in part of a series of features on how transport problems affect the everyday lives of Africans.

If you want to pass your driving test in Kenya you have to pass a strict theory test first. It's a sensible measure designed to improve the skills of drivers in a country plagued by horrific road accident figures.

But the theory test bears little resemblance to reality - once on the road you quickly learn to expect the unexpected.

Road signs test
It helps to know the signs
Drivers switch lanes without warning, cars turn left when they are indicating right, matatus - the notorious minibus taxis - stop to squeeze in one more passenger.

Unsurprisingly, on the day of the driving and theory tests I woke up with nervous anticipation. But after four hours waiting in the hot sun in the police station yard any nerves were replaced by simple boredom.

After being called into the station for the test on the highway code, I came out five minutes later only to wait for another three hours for the driving test itself.

Slipping and sliding

Four of us were taken off by the instructor as Nairobi's rush hour was getting into full swing. The first candidate Dan, was simply told to drive along the main road for a stretch, which he seemed to do perfectly, and then stop.

Learners sit the test
The written test is little more than a forrmality
However the next candidate Erica had a tougher time of it. For reasons only known to the examiner she was told to turn left up a dirt road being worked on by diggers.

After driving up an incline on the road Erica's test quickly took a turn for the worse. As she was unable to use the clutch properly, the car slowed and then stopped as the wheels spun around in the dirt.

The examiner helped Erica select first gear and insisted she drive on - right through the pile of dirt a foot high in the middle of the road.

As the car slid again and then stopped completely it was clear that Erica could not use the clutch - even in the back the smell of the burning clutch was overpowering.

In Kenya you can buy anything

Automobile Association official
Here is a clear fail I thought, as one of the digger trucks behind us started hooting. And it got worse, in fact it got surreal; workmen gathered around the car to advise Erica how to work the clutch, select first gear and move through the dirt.

This is a driving test I thought, not a lesson, and I wondered why the instructor had insisted that a candidate drive up a road which any good driver would surely have avoided.


It was only after a lot of prodding and help from the examiner and the road workers that Erica got the car to move and managed to drive it to the end of the road.

Driving school car
Glorious success guaranteed?
We were all simply relieved the ordeal was over, and it may even have helped the rest of us.

After all the excitement my nerves had gone, and in five minutes after performing a hill start, turning left and driving back to the police station, the test was over.

There we were all told to come back the next day for the results.

To my amazement I saw Erica stroll out of the station office happily clutching her pass certificate.

Police cut

This meant two things, I thought: first a "little something" must have been given over and second that I would surely pass - and so it turned out I did.

The next day I was at Kenya's Automobile Association to convert my new licence into an international licence. I told the AA woman about my driving test escapades but she wasn't surprised.

Your expensive driving schools fees, she told me, included 1,000 shillings ($15) for the police and that was why Erica, myself and probably all the candidates from the school passed.

"What is the phrase?" she said and then remembered: "In Kenya you can buy anything."

It was then that I felt I had not only learnt how to drive - I had learnt first hand how inescapable Kenya's legendary corruption really is.

Without realising it I had guaranteed myself a pass by choosing an expensive driving school.

I hadn't been paying for a better instructor or more lessons, I had simply been paying, as thousands of Kenyans do every day, to get things done.

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