Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Kenyans and the art of rubbernecking

If rubbernecking were an Olympic sport, a Kenyan would be a shoo-in for the gold every time.

I was on the bus heading into town the other day, and as usual I had my head down reading my book. Suddenly there was a big commotion. Everybody on my side of the bus pressed their faces to the window. Everybody on the other side stood up and tried to cram into the aisle to see what the others were looking at. Excited voices buzzed back and forth: “What’s happening?” “Can you see it?”

They were looking at a huge circle of people gathered around something unseen on the ground – possibly someone who had died of a heart attack or been hit by a car. The rubberneckers on the bus were rubbernecking at another group of rubberneckers. The funny thing was that the bus – which if you have ever ridden public transport in Nairobi you will know was not very stable to begin with – tilted crazily to the side. Had it fallen over the rubberneckers would have become the rubberneckees (I know that’s not a real word, but I like it).

This incident encapsulated the culture of rubbernecking in Kenya. I find the sheer exuberance and lack of embarrassment with which Kenyans go about rubbernecking very endearing, although I’m sure if I were lying in a pool of my own blood I would not be so keen on it.

If you open the Daily Nation on any given day, you are sure to find a few photographs showing Wananchi (citizens) rubbernecking. The picture may show a truck overturned in a shallow river watched by a line of people gathered on the hill above, curious onlookers peeking through the curtains of a home where a rape and murder victim has been found or hundreds of people watching the clean-up of a supermarket gutted by fire in the hope of seeing some bodies being brought out (all real examples).

The phenomenon cuts across all strata of society: you are just as likely to see a businessman in a pin-striped suit jostling for a good view as you are a security guard or gardener.

So why do I like it? Well, because it is an honest expression of human nature that is considered unacceptable in my own country. As much as we don’t like to admit it, humans have a fascination with death, preferably other people’s. I remember as a boy of about 12 coming across the body of a man who had dropped dead of a heart attack near my school in Glasgow. My friend and I stopped to gawk as all the adults walked past. You could tell they wanted gather round, but in our culture it wasn’t appropriate. All they could do was slow down and look out of the corner of their eyes for as long as possible. As an adult, I am now bound by my culture, so when I pass an accident or dead body now, I do little more than steal a furtive glance, even though I want to see more.

There is nothing inherently bad about wanting to look at car wrecks. Death is coming to us all, yet it is a huge mystery. We only get to experience it once barring medical intervention and we so rarely get to observe it close up. Why would we not want to look it in the eyes and try to understand it, glean some hints as to its nature, at every opportunity?

Of course, this is just my opinion on why the wananchi gather. It is possible some people just find intestines pretty. Maybe one day I will join the crowd of onlookers to ask them why they are there. I am not sure they will have an answer for me, as I do believe the urge to watch is instinctive. But at least it will give me an excuse to get close to the body and have a right good stare.