The low purr of the engine is smooth and steady as I grip the steering wheel. This is the final hurdle to getting that elusive drivers licence in my hands. I have done tests before though not the ones I couldn’t cram my answers to. This one is administered by the area traffic commandant. So it’s a big deal.
Mr. Traffic Commandant is a burly man in his forties or early fifties with a stern face and tinted spectacles perched high up the bridge of his nose. His police hat sits jauntily on his head and his voice is authoritative. He gives a pep-talk before the test begins the kind that is meant to prepare newbie drivers for the madness on Kenyan roads. Careless driving will kill you. Slow responses will kill you. Speed will kill you, he says. You get the drift.
I had done some revision on the road signs and how to prepare for the practical driving test. The driving manual said you could try and ‘relax’ by having a casual chat with a friend. We were all doing our last-minute reading so “casual chats” were out of question. I perused an old manual which my mom used in the early nineties before roads were a necessity (it was missing a host of modern signs) as I waited my turn. I hopped on board as soon as my name was called out.
As I sit in the driver’s seat, I think about how our instructor, Man-man (an abbrev of Macharia) would tell us to listen and feel the car while you changed gears. Now I could ‘feel’ the clutch. The gears. The gas pedal. All of them. Or maybe my senses were just heightened by fear. He was also a local celebrity in Kinoo, a suburb in the outskirts of Nairobi, which is why when the school truck would drive by with us seated in the back, he would hoot and flicker the headlights incessantly.
I adjust my rear-view mirror like I know what I’m doing as Mr Commandant goes through my theory test, which I passed by the way. I’m trying to impress him and this will determine if I get that little red booklet that most if not all covet. It is the true mark of being an adult. With that licence in hand the folks can now send you to shagz to pick bags of rice and waru (potatoes). And that you now buy the groceries and pay bills on time instead of giving in to the splurge temptation. He signals for me to begin driving.
I slowly ease into the mid-morning traffic. That red letter ‘L’ at the back of the truck attracts all sorts of aggressive drivers. They hoot at you and show you the finger while they zoom past because you’re driving like a tortoise. Your eyes swivel from one side mirror to the next giving you a dizzy feeling. The vein on your neck is throbbing with anxiety of having to deal with an angry motorist who you have had the misfortune of hitting. And just when you feel the need for speed your good judgement tells you that showing off isn’t a good idea. So I sit there and wish away collisions of any kind because I haven’t earned enough to pay for anyone’s damaged car yet. Several hundred metres in, I feel my confidence coming back, I square my shoulders as I overtake a green Fiat. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Well, at least I’m not gripping the steering wheel too tightly and my nose is not so close to the windshield.
We have been driving in silence for twenty minutes now. Not a word has been said. I’m beginning to doubt my bravado at acing this test. Warm patches of sweat are forming on the armpits of my blue blouse as I pull into a kerb and wait for the verdict. If I don’t pass I might as well fail at everything else in life.
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