On November 21st, 2013 I leapt from my bed to the sound of a gunshot. Rubbing my eyes to remove the feces-filled soot from last night's trash burning, my hotel room slowly came into view as the frost from my breath circled around me. My first thought was a terror group was targeting my hotel in Nairobi, followed quickly by regret for not being back in Dubai with my wife and kids. As I pulled up my jeans I recognized the audible sound of silence.
I slowly made my way around my luxury suite in this five-star hotel situated in the heart of a borderline third-world country. Eventually I found the restroom where the sound of my feet crunching glass made apparent the source of the late night disturbance: I had turned on a hot shower to steam my clothes in my freezing room; the hot water hit the cheap glass and shattered the door in the bathroom. Idiot.
The next morning my appointed driver rolled up in a used (sold as new) Toyota Highlander with a radio that only displayed text in Japenese. We drove past the heavily armed security guards through the hotel's iron gates and joined the melee of businessmen braving rush hour. A coworker sat in the front enjoying a cigarette in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. He preferred to have the window down as we crawled through the back roads of the metropolis in spite of the hawkers and occasional stare from pedestrians at this "Muzungu". I appreciated the occasional waft of second-hand tobacco; it blocked out the ever-present stench of burnt trash and exhaust.
An hour into the ten mile commute, I spoke with my driver of progress constructing the outer ring road and the impact it will have on congestion and (thereby) quality of life for the average Kenyan. He suggested the matatu buses would be the first to benefit from the increased access to pavement, followed closely by the lorries couriering oil from the north to Mombasa and the rest of Africa. This represents one of President Kenyatta's most significant pledges: to establish Kenya as a major player in the oil industry, funneling the profits to public works projects without falling victim to the corruption which plagues nearby Nigeria.
However, as with most cultural shifts, real change will be influenced as much by forces outside Kenya's borders as those within. Consider the inevitable disruption when used cars being sold as new bear badges like Tesla and come equipped with standard autonomous driving powered by electricity. Autonomy will allow for further urban sprawl into the beautiful Rift Valley and may well mature faster than the development of public transportation infrastructure. Electric engines will apply downwards pressure on demand for Kenyan oil, reducing the volume of lorries while depressing the economy.
The matatus are on the front line as these technological advances from the West meet the aspirations of the Kenyan people. Already the matatus serve as the focal point for many modernization initiatives in the country, including the drive to reduce corruption exhibited by traffic enforcement officials through the shift to cashless payments. Increased access to pavement will reduce the congestion on inner Nairobi roads, but an expansion of Kenyan's economy will boost the market for private vehicles.
The government's ability to navigate this changing landscape may well determine the quality of life for the average Kenyan. Electric engines will reduce noxious vehicular emissions, but will have little impact on the volume of burnt trash filling the night air. Economic opportunities should become available, at least in the near term, as the government exploits its oil reserves -- assuming an equitable distribution of wealth.
Even the prevalence of terrorism will be influenced by this technological and economic shift. Al Shabab and related terror organizations are supremely concerned about the proliferation of a homogonized, Western view of humanity. In a sense, the matatus will act as the canary in the mine on this front as the country grows in prominence. Will Kenya hold onto its own method of transport, its own way of life -- or will it gradually succumb to the ideals of pale-faced Westerners too lazy to use an iron?
Nick B. is a guest contributor to APEX. He is a journeyman adventure junky with a passion for technology, ethics and culture. He currently resides in New York City with his wife, two kids and two dogs.