Driving lessons

Africa car

I was rummaging in a large and dark cupboard of files yesterday, when a torrent of books and papers fell out at my feet. Among them was the Zambian Highway Code, a small, spiral-bound volume printed in a register so bad that the photographs and illustrations actually hurt your eyes.

Eager as ever for a distraction from what I should in fact have been doing, I began to flick through it, reflecting as I did so on the yawning gap between theory and practice that is perhaps the mark of most government publications, but which is particularly and poignantly apparent in Africa.

You only have to spend a couple of minutes behind the wheel in Lusaka to become aware that laws on not blocking junctions in slow-moving traffic, or always driving in the left lane of a dual carriageway unless overtaking, bear only the most tangential relationship to reality.

Nonetheless, the Highway Code earnestly implores its readers to overtake only when they are sure it is safe to do so, and not to become impatient in traffic jams and swerve into other lanes in an attempt to cut in front of vehicles ahead of them.

Some of its advice, however, does seem more tailored to local conditions. An entreaty to be aware that ‘a group of pedestrians might scatter on first being aware of the approach of a motor vehicle and then, at the last moment cross the road to rejoin those on the other side’ will elicit shrieks of recognition from anyone who has driven in Africa. They’ll smile, too, at instructions not to ‘wander unnecessarily from lane to lane’ or splash other road users as you negotiate potholes in wet weather.

Oddly, the book devotes a large section to the behaviour required of both vehicles and pedestrians at traffic lights. I say oddly because there really aren’t a lot of traffic lights in Zambia, and also because I would estimate that at any given time at least a third of them are out of order.

But this is precisely the sort of situation in which Zambia’s drivers can show their mettle and ability to improvise. Because we are all so used to potholed roads, broken down vehicles and things generally not working quite as they should, we’ve developed ways of keeping traffic moving in situations where drivers in other countries would flounder helplessly.

There is a set of lights at a junction on a route I take regularly, and for several weeks now these lights have been stuck on red in every direction. It’s actually quite inspiring to see how everyone copes with this. There is an almost balletic grace to the way vehicles arc cautiously around one another, a take-it-in-turns rule wordlessly agreed upon by every driver. The traffic flows just as well – perhaps even better – without the lights as with them, and the ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit between disparate and put-upon drivers would bring a lump to the throat of those inclined to a sunny view of humankind.

In fact beyond doubt the greatest impediments to the smooth running of traffic in Lusaka are the traffic police and their roadblocks. These studies in futility spring up randomly, and are invariably manned (or – much worse – womanned) by unsmiling uniformed officers, many grown fat on the perks of the job. These police checks proliferate as Christmas approaches, as Lusaka’s Finest seek ways to augment their meager government salaries with bribes for real or imagined infractions by motorists.

Expat chat forums are alive with stories of those stopped (as I was a few weeks ago) for speeding when they were not, of speed cameras not actually measuring speed but instead stuck permanently at a figure a few kph above the limit, and of police pulling over only those who look most able to pay. It is infuriating. It is the worst kind of petty, everyday corruption that would be so easy to stop with a little political will.

But I confess I have got quite fond of the policeman who is usually at the roadblock closest to our house. He has got to know and recognize me and my car, remembers that all my licences and tax and insurance bits are in order, and that my vehicle is a model of roadworthiness. As a consequence we always greet each other with a smile and he waves me through the check without requiring me to stop. Earlier this year my youngest daughter was out staying with us. In the early flush of enthusiasm that unfailingly follows passing your test, she was eager to drive whenever we went out. As we approached our local police check for the first time with her at the wheel, I could see my traffic-officer friend squinting quizzically at her.

He flagged us down, and I lowered my window. Instantly his face broke into a smile. ‘Madam! You are the one! You can proceed,’ he exclaimed and waved us through with a flourish.

That’s the sort of moment that makes you forgive and forget potholes and corruption, and makes you happy to drive in Zambia.

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