Thursday, March 3, 2011

Car qualms

So we finally did it. Colin and broke the bank and bought a car.  Normally, we’d be celebrating a shiny new toy like this, but we spent the 2 hours driving it home from the dealer befuddled about the decision.

First, it was damned expensive.  Living in Western Kenya is ridiculously inexpensive in most facets of life.  Rent for a 3 bedroom house is under $150, child care and house help combined total even less than that, and pocket change buys you dinner.  But because there’s no local production and import duties are a cash cow for the government, getting around in a private vehicle costs nearly double what it would stateside.  A modest used 8-year-old Japanese sedan will run you around $10,000 after import duties.  Selling our old car covered less than half of the cost of this new car.  It’s the most money (save grad school) we’ve ever spent on a single item in our young married life.

And what we got for that dear price was a 2003 Nissan x-trail (to handle the epically bad roads) with questionable history.  It came without an owners manual (which would have been in Japanese in any case), and we couldn’t look up any vehicle history through a VIN number.  As we were driving off the lot, the airbag light began to blink ominously, turning up the radio we discovered the speakers were blown, and we shortly realized that the car is permanently stuck on the gas guzzling 4 wheel drive position. 

But to check my complaining, I know what an average University educated Kenyan makes, and in order to finance a car, they’d probably have to offer up their first born and any subsequent grandchildren.  

Incredibly few people in Busia drive their own cars, and that’s the second reason Colin and I feel ambivalent about our purchase.   It’s a shiny hulking 2 ton monument to these very wealth inequalities we normally try so delicately to step around.  And it’s made us immediately more conspicuous than we already are.

So, there are a few things wrong with that.  First, the guilt about our underserved wealth now weighs as much as this car.  There’s no getting around it.  Most smart, hard working, honest people here in Kenya will never be able to own a car like this.  Why should we?  But at the same time, these smart, hard working, honest people will be coming in droves to ask us to borrow the car.  We’d do the same in their shoes.  But it’s going to be difficult to manage.

But the real reason we got the car in the first place is 2 feet tall and the most important thing in our lives.  Statistically, the greatest danger we place Caleb in is getting around by bus or matatu.  Car seats are not an option there.  We can put him in a car seat if we hire a private car and driver, but that’s expensive and makes it difficult to explore the country freely. Caleb didn’t choose to live in Kenya, his parents did, s0 we have an obligation to minimize his risks as much as possible. 

So, that’s the best reason to feel OK with our new purchase.  

Right now it’s doing a lot of sitting around in the driveway providing a distraction for Caleb when tear ourselves away and head to work.  But we’re also looking forward to more easily getting out of Busia and exploring East Africa in manner that’s a far cry from my back packing days, but I’m sure will be filled with other kinds of adventures. 

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