These days – Nairobi traffic being what it is – when the time comes to travel abroad, getting to, or meeting someone from, the airport is no longer the social occasion it once was. When we were kids, the drive out to the airport was regarded as an exciting safari – the long, wide tarmac road followed the boundary of the Nairobi National Park, and you’d see zebra and wildebeest, kongoni and ostriches – sometimes even rhinos, from the car. Around the perimeter of the airport itself, giraffes would unbend from their delicate nibbling of stubby thorn trees to gaze perplexedly at aircraft coming in to land. Sometimes, when you drove out to the airport at night, the red eyes of hyenas, loping across the road ahead, would gleam in the headlights. Once, we even sped past the sorry spectacle of lioness, run over by a vehicle.
Now, the 20-odd kilometre drive is bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cars and lorries and buses and mini-vans, either ferrying tourists or cut flowers, or green beans to and from the airport; or commodities between Nairobi and Mombasa. And the scenery is wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder buildings – high-rises, glass-fronted showrooms, sprawling hotels, petrol stations… with not a glimpse any more of the park, and its animals. It’s still there, but behind a bank of industry and construction.
What used to be a 25-30 minute drive, can now take anything from one hour to three, depending on the time of day your flight arrives, or departs. So nowadays everyone uses taxis to make the journey. You’d never ask a friend or relative to drive out and meet you – it’s just a total waste of a morning, afternoon, or evening.
My usual taxi driver is a lady named Jane. She’s loud and proud – deservedly so, with a successful taxi company and a small tented camp in the Masai Mara – and she’s great fun. Being – to coin Alexander McCall Smith’s term – ‘traditionally built’, Jane is always on a diet, and generous with her advice and great tips about healthy eating. She goes to church on Sundays. And she plays golf. I like to think of her on the course, in her long shorts and spiked shoes, as a Tigress. I’d imagine she can give a ball a mighty whack. She regularly enjoys success at the weekends (after prayers), and frequently has news of the latest electrical appliance she’s won at a tournament. Her kitchen must be one of the best-outfitted in her estate.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised, when I called her to book a taxi to the airport last Sunday, to learn that she was unavailable. I knew she’d either be at church or playing golf. I was half right. She was playing golf – in Sweden.
I ended up with Ibrahim instead. He drew up at the house to collect my father and me, and hopped out of the car to help with the luggage.
The reason he hopped out, was because he only has one leg. It was a little disconcerting to begin with, then it occurred to me that, in fact, all automatic cars are driven by people with one leg – after all, my own left leg is quite redundant when I drive my brother’s car.
But what is even more remarkable about Ibrahim is that he too, is a sports-lover. He cycles internationally –he taught himself to ride a bike by just gripping the saddle with his thighs. Look at this video…
Ibrahim’s actually entered races cycling like that – one, a 100-mile mountain bike race in Colorado, if you please. Nowadays, though he has a prosthetic leg as well, which he uses. Oh, and did I mention he’s on the Kenya Amputee Football team?
I’ve written a story about him, and once again, the BBC have taken it for their programme, From Our Own Correspondent, which I’m delighted about. If you’d like to listen to it, it’s going to play on the World Service tomorrow (at 1150 local time in Kenya, but I’m not sure for other parts of the world). And from 1150 GMT, it will be accessible to listen to online at this link…
Next time any of you visit Kenya and would like me to arrange your collection from the airport, you can choose between One-Leg Cabs, or the Tigress – as long as she’s not playing golf in Outer Mongolia that day.