Monday, June 17, 2013

Focus on Assistance or Accidents?

On the way back from the airport, on the one main road out of Kisumu my car sputtered and stopped.  I was alone, having run out of the house quickly heading to the airport to collect our newly found lost luggage.  The car completely stalled, right in the middle of the road.  But not just any road.  This was a road used by impatient matatus, aggressive long haul truckers, and kamakzi buses, all jockeying to get ahead of each other on a narrow pot-holed road; a road flanked by throngs of people. A chaotic road.  My car stopped and wouldn’t start in a country with no 911, no publicly available ambulances and questionable medical care.  
Not the exact road, but not far off.
 I got out of the car to scratch my head and collect myself. By the looks of it, the situation was pretty dire. Angry drivers shook their fists at me as they yelled things I didn’t care to hear punctuated by “Mzungu” and maneuvered around the car.

My phone was uncharged and tucked into one of the suitcases in the back seat. My jumper cables, used just the day before to shock the car back to life, sat uselessly on my sofa at home. I was by myself.

But strangely, I wasn’t worried. And I didn’t feel alone.  The streets, like I mentioned, are teeming with people.  People who I knew would help me, as they always had before.

It wasn’t long before a motorbike driver took on my cause. He quickly gathered half a dozen men to try and push the car out of the road. No dice, the car was stuck in park. Still, there was a lot of gathering and discussing and problem-solving that was going on all around me and amid this, even with trucks careening towards me. I knew I would be OK. I was oddly calm.

News of my predicament percolated through the crowd. A few people helped to wave oncoming cars away from me. Others opened the hood to try and solve the problem, telling me when to try and ignite the engine.  Several turns of the key and suddenly she kicked back into life.

I won’t say people cheered, it was a petty drama in their day, but we were all relieved together.    

This was a perfect example, I thought, of the wonder and comfort of living in a country where this kind of help is simply assumed; where people sense and act on their interconnectedness.  Where you’re never really alone. And this is all true. 

But this is also true:  

The next morning Rukia greeted me with a solemn look at bad news. 

“There was a car accident.  All the passengers in the back of the car died.  The driver is at Aga Khan Hospital.”  She said, getting right to the meat of the tragedy. 

I asked her to back up. Who? What? When? 

Her neighbor had been driving the car, she explained. He swerved to get out of the way of an oncoming car, which had veered into his lane to pass a truck.  His swerve landed him in a ditch and the car rolled over. 

I’m not sure if the back seat passengers, also neighbors of hers, died instantly or on the way to the hospital. Again, there is no 911. No ambulances at the ready.  Still, strangers stopped their cars to take the wounded and dead to the best hospital in the nearest city.  

Rukia shook her head.  “The roads are too bad. Do you see this?”  She pointed to a deep scar above her eye that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. “The same thing happened to me years ago. The two in the back died, but me and driver survived.”

Statistically the most dangerous thing we do in this country is drive on the roads. The first year we lived here a boy we knew was killed by a motorbike accident.  11 people died in a matatu our friend missed boarding. There are endless other examples. We try to be careful.   

I’m not entirely sure what to make of all of this. The morning Rukia told me of the accident I was cheerily contemplating the first half of this blog post.  Maybe I’m blind to the risks of living here, too willing to see past them or ascribe positive intentions where they might not exist.   My husband would say I’m too cavalier about a litany of possible risks.  There are real dangers.  Dangers people are trying to escape when they ask in a number of indirect ways how we can get them to America.

Still, I don’t believe I’m entirely na├»ve to the dangers. I could list them off for you.  But the truth is I don’t want to focus on the risks (most of which I’m able to mitigate anyway as an expat from a wealthy country).

A friend of mine just told me this story:  Her therapist asked her to look around the room and count all of the red items.  “How may are there?” he then asked, and she responded confidently.  “Now how many blue?” he asked.  She had no idea. 

The simple point is that you choose what to pay attention to, and that becomes what you know and understand - it becomes your reality. But what you focus on is your choice.  I’m going to continue to focus on the good stuff.  


  1. Are you living there permanently???

    1. No permanently, but we're loving it for now. Are you worried? ; )

  2. Wow, Kim. Sweet and sour. But that's sure a great lesson from the therapist. (And on a far less significant but still materially important plane, your luggage arrived - hooray!)

  3. Yeah. Umhum. All of it: the dangerous roads, the choice of what to look at, the sense of being (somewhat) protected by the expat armor. I'm not sure if I would have a clutch of people coming to my rescue if I were to have car trouble, although now that I think about it, when I've seen cars on the side of the road, there are also some bystanders/helpers nearby. There is more of an infrastructure here in Abu Dhabi, and god knows the driving isn't as terrifying as Delhi or Jaipur, but still. Driving-related death is a regular thing. But then I think that in countries without first-world wealth & healthcare, death is a regular thing, period. No less horrible but much more daily. And that makes how people react to it different, I think....?

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