THE BLOG
10/24/2009 08:59 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

To Fix a Flat

As the chronicler of most things American, it is not surprising that Walt Disney can be looked to for what stands out to Americans about Africa.. The phrase "Hakuna Matata" ("no problem") popularized in the blockbuster movie Lion King represents a fundamental tenant of the African consciousness. Time does not stand still in Africa; it just moves more slowly, more sporadically and less fastidiously. Clocks are rare, stress uncommon, and punctuality not a cherished virtue.

To an American trial lawyer, who divides his life into fifteen minute segments on Microsoft Outlook, schedules meetings, travel and lunches with military precision months in advance, and places restaurant reservations on line, the transition to Africa time is disconcerting. To a Vashon Island resident who coordinates his life to the ferry boat schedule in one minute intervals, the cultural contrast is downright maddening.

My October 2009 trip to Kenya had a concrete purpose: furnish the guest house in the Maasai Mara that I had just purchased for our program; inspect the feeding programs at three schools; evaluate the progress at our 175 student girls' school NGO and set the groundwork for a women's health initiative clinic at our girls school in December. Since both the house and the school were a seven hour drive from Nairobi, logistics and timing assumed a preeminent role in my thinking. After spending Wednesday recovering from jet lag in Nairobi and renewing my acquaintance with my African friends, I was anxious to get started. We made plans for our driver to pick us up at the hotel promptly at 9:15; purchase linens and kitchen supplies in Nairobi; undertake the arduous three hour drive to Narok; purchase furniture in Narok and deliver the items to the guest house in the Maasai Mara another three hours away. There were plans to be kept and a schedule to be met. Hakuna Matata be damned.

My plans began to deteriorate when I overslept and did not get out of bed until 8:30am. I had met some Kenyan professionals in the bar the previous evening and had altogether too much fun drinking, smoking cigarettes and talking politics. Thoroughly hung over, my best laid plans found themselves in conflict with my aching head. An hour spent checking email and extinguishing some minor office conflagrations, a leisurely shower and shave and I felt better. However, by the time I got to the restaurant at 10:00 am, I had missed the breakfast buffet and had to order breakfast ala carte. Joined by our program director Sekeyian Yialie and her 20 month old daughter Nina (my goddaughter) we ordered a simple breakfast. However, having just endured the breakfast rush of the more punctual hotel guests, the wait staff had reverted to Hakuna Matata and our meal of eggs and toasted was served with the leisurely elegance of a three course dinner at a five star restaurant.

By eleven o'clock we heard from our driver. The ten year old Isuzu Range Rover we had purchased for our program needed service, a new battery, and insurance. While transporting students and food across the dirt roads of Maasai Land and making occasional trips to Narok for supplies, bureaucratic niceties such as registration and insurance were superfluous. No one cares if a vehicle in Maasai Land is registered and any trouble with the Narok authorities may be handled with a small but heartfelt gratuity to the police officer. However, in Nairobi we had to be legit. As it turned out, my well laid plans for a 9:15 departure never registered with our driver, a 20 something Maasai from a village neighboring our director's. It would take thirty minutes to get cash to the driver to cover the repairs and another half hour to transfer funds to the insurance company via cell phone. The day is running away from us.

As our program director handles the financial details for the vehicle, I take Nina back to my room, her screams disrupting the staid solemnity of the colonial era hotel. The only child of a single mother, Nina has the same attachment issues as any 20 month anywhere in the world. As I hold her close to me, however, a transformation takes place. It is said the olfactory memories are the most indelible in the human consciousness. As Nina gradually settles in my arms, I remember that she was only nine days old when her mother brought her into our home and I held her for the first time. As I rock her in my arms, Nina's screams are overtaken by a surreal equanimity as she settles her head on my chest. Nuzzling her shaven head against my cheek, Nina and I renew the bond we forged when she was nine days old and she gradually transitions from hysteria, to anxiety, to relaxation, to sleep.

It is now noon and I am in my hotel room with a sleeping baby in my arms, no further along the checklist of items that I had set out for the day. While it has been a long time since I have known the joy of holding a sleeping a baby, I am growing increasingly anxious of our agenda. At twelve thirty, Nina wakes up, but there is still no sign of our vehicle. Eager to get going, Sekeyian and I decide to take a cab to the mall while we wait for the vehicle to complete its service.

Nairobi is a delightful montage of modernity and tradition. The mall where the home furnishing store is located is virtually indistinguishable from a mall in any small American city, with the same range of products, similar brands and electronic scanners. Nubile teenage girls in tight fitting jeans and tank tops mingle next to faceless, shapeless women clad from head to toe in a burkas. Store personnel are everywhere and three individuals attach themselves to us as our personal shoppers.

We fill three shopping carts with household goods and line them up in front of the scanner. After the items are scanned, three young men spend a half hour placing the items into boxes and tying the boxes with twine. They carry the boxes down to the street level and carefully fit them into the taxi that has been waiting for the past hour. We return to the hotel and the taxi driver charges us 600 shillings (nine dollars) for his service. I give him 1000 shillings and stand by as three hotel porters unload our boxes from the taxi.

It is three thirty and there is still no sign of our car. I sit in the terrace restaurant while Nina gnaws on mash potatoes and spinach, drumming my fingers in rising impatience. "Can't you call the driver again?" I implore, "We are never going to get to Narok at this rate." "Calm down Matt," Sekeyian replies, "Hakuna Matata." And suddenly I feel the frenetic anxiety of a harried American lift from my shoulders to be replaced by a state of equanimity and grace. What does it matter what time we arrive in Narok; I will be in Africa for two weeks. What difference will a few hours make?

Our vehicle arrives at four thirty and we spend half an hour loading the vehicle with suitcases, computer equipment and the boxes of supplies we purchased at the mall. It is an intricate undertaking and by the time we get in the car we realize there is no room for Nina's nanny. We make hasty arrangements to have her picked up and taken to Narok by a friend and depart headlong into the rush hour traffic. It is five o'clock and Sekeyian makes it a practice never to leave Nairobi after four.

Driving in Nairobi requires quick reflexes, strong nerves and a well honed sense of timing. The substitution of roundabouts for traffic lights creates currents of vehicles much like the currents in a river splitting and rejoining the main stream diverting around rocks and obstacles.

Enraptured by a state of Hakuna Matata, I revel at the bright colors of the buildings and the chaotic precision of the teeming humanity walking home from work. As our vehicle slowly nudges through the downtown traffic, I am struck by the profound sense of style and decorum of the Nairobi workers. While Americans spend 300 dollars for a pair of distressed jeans, African workers garner their meager resources to adorn themselves in color coordinated suites and ties. They may have only one suit, but they wear it with style and panache. Matronly women don brightly colored dresses and impeccably styled hair. The lack of material wealth among many Africans does not confer license to dress informally but rather an imperative to collect their limited clothing into style and preventability.

As we creep through Nairobi traffic, we pass within inches of matoutos, small minivans crammed tight with sixteen passengers. Despite the tight quarters, the formality and decorum among the matouto passengers is palpable. Paid by the run, matouto drivers are among the most reckless in Kenya, rendering the tightly packed vehicles roiling death traps. "Watch out for the matoutos," is the rallying cry of responsible Kenyan drivers.

Traffic thins out and we pull into a gas station to for oil and fuel. The station would be identical to an American Stop and Go, save for the fact that we are assisted by three attendants, all clad in matching uniforms. One employee pumps the gas, one checks the oil and water and the third supervises the other two. I walk into the store and purchase a pint of Tusker for myself and a soda for our program director.

Drinking beer from the open container on the road, my state of Hakuna Matata increases as we drive through the Nairobi suburbs, past marketplaces, slums and industrial sites. Even at dusk, the open market places are stacked with fruits and vegetables and packed with people. These open marketplaces display the organized chaos of free enterprise as it prevails on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or Lloyds of London.

As twilight turns to dusk, I fall asleep in the car, exhausted by jet lag, fortified by the Tusker, and mollified by my newfound state of Hakuna Matata. A half hour later, I am awakened by the sensation that the car has stopped moving and is tilting toward the left. As I look up, I see that my director has taken Nina from her car seat and is rocking her in her arms. "We have a flat tire," she told me, "Nick is trying to fix it."

I alight from the vehicle, my male sensibilities preventing me from standing idle while a tire is being changed. The vehicle is stranded on a narrow shoulder of a busy two lane highway with semi trucks, busses and matutos speeding by at high speed three feet from our stricken vehicle. A Toyota pickup truck has stopped ahead of us and three men are working with Nick to change the tire.

It soon becomes apparent that while the jack Nick was using was able to elevate the car high enough to remove the punctured tire, it could not raise high enough for the new tire to be installed. Further inquiry reveals that our driver Nick had neglected to make sure that our vehicle was equipped with a jack or, as dusk turned to darkness, a flashlight. Instead, we are forced to change the tire with an inadequate jack illuminated by the Toyota's headlights. Clearly Hakuna Matata had gone too far as I suppressed the urge to chastise our driver for such irresponsible preparation. Thinking of the prior trips I had taken in the vehicle across the desolate Maasai Mara in hundred degree heat, my western sensibilities eschewed the poor preparation and safety consciousness manifested by our driver. However, this was not the time to play the blame game but rather to extricate ourselves from what was becoming an increasingly dangerous situation.

Nick and our volunteer helpers pack rocks under the base of the jack to enable it to reach the magic height to change the tire. Repeatedly, the car slips off the jack with a thud, placing the axel on the pavement. With each attempt, Nick and our volunteers assume greater and greater risk, burying themselves deeper and deeper under the vehicle to set the jack in the optimal position. Once raised, they crawl under the vehicle to prop stones under the frame to hold the height attained before lowering the jack and placing more dunnage underneath it. It was now pitch black and half a dozen men were assisting us. A man on a bicycle stopped and joined the work party as others took tumbleweeds and placed them 100 meters back on the highway to warn passing motorists to pull away from the crippled vehicle to give the work crew room to set the jack. There was no way this work could be done without stepping out into the highway exposing ourselves to being clipped by a passing semi truck.

Despite the increasingly perilous situation, I maintained my sense of Hakuna Matata, confident that we would ultimately find adequate footing for the jack to change the tire. However, Sekeyian was far less sanguine. The area were the car was stopped is rumored to be beset with robbers and is not a place to linger after dark. Standing on the side of the highway with Nina in the rain, she was befriended by the two middle aged Kikuyu women in the Toyota. "You and the baby need to come into the cab to stay dry," they said to my Maasai director, "she will catch a cold out here." After several more failed attempts to raise the jack, they told Sekeyian, "We don't live far from here. Your party can stay with us tonight until a mechanic can help you tomorrow morning." The two women had known each other for twenty minutes.

Watching the men work, I feel a need to render assistance, but my natural instinct to take charge is quelled by the knowledge that there is nothing they are doing to solve the problem that I would not do myself. I step back, contenting myself to locate rocks to block the tires and hold the lug nuts to keep them from getting lost in the dark.

The leader of the group in the pickup truck is a man in his late fifties named Peter. Carefully dressed in slacks, frayed dress shirt, tie, sweater vest and threadbare jacket, Peter embodies the dignified formality of Africans rich and poor. Most of his six passengers had been riding in the back of the pickup, so the increasing rain intensified his desire to get back on the road and complete his journey. Nevertheless, there was no way he was going to leave us until the situation was remedied.

My fears of the car crushing one of these good people increased as they reached deep under the vehicle to locate the lowest point to attach the jack. Reaching under the car to pump the jack, anything could have knocked the vehicle from its precipitous perch and sent it crashing down on this stranger's ribcage. Slowly, the car rose to the highest point yet attained. Nick took the spare tire and held it up to the brake drum. Almost. He slid once more under the car and pumped the jack a few more times. Success. The three men rotated the spare tire in the pitch black, lining up the lug bolts to the holes in the rim by feel. Once affixed, they lightly bolted the wheel onto the brake drum, lowered the jack and tightened the bolts. We had been working for at least an hour. Without the help of Peter and his crew, we never would have fixed the problem.

None of the volunteers had given any indication that they expected payment for their efforts. Nevertheless, I reached into my pocket and gave some money to the younger boys, grateful for their assistance and mindful of the fact that we were all not only soaking wet but smudged with axle grease. Peter, however, declined any remuneration. "We are Christians," he told me, "we believe in helping people in need. The next time you see someone on the side of the road, you help them and that will be my payback."
"Are you sure you won't take something to give to your church," I implored, "I really want to show my gratitude."
"No thank you, he said."
"What about some poor member of your church who needs help?" I begged.
"That's OK," Peter said. "We have that covered."

With that he alighted into the Toyota, his friends hopped into the truck bed and they drove off into the dark rainy night. We got back into the car, and began the 2000 foot descent into the Rift Valley, the birthplace of humanity. How little things change.
In the wake of the intertribal violence arising out of the failed 2007 elections it is easy to grow discouraged at the Balkanization of the Kenyan nation. These random acts of kindness rendered across tribal memberships belie this grim prognosis and keep alive the hope of a unified nation. Meanwhile Peter's righteous admonition to "play it forward" provides an ethical template for all peoples, all races and all nations.