• Perceptions from faraway are grounded upon return to the country
In the very early 1990s, as Kenya was going from being a single-party dictatorship to a multi-party democracy, it often felt as though the eyes of the world’s media were concentrated on the country.
At the same time, I remember there being a debate among certain journalists about how many foreign correspondents seemed to rely on taxi cab drivers to give them a sense of the nation’s pulse.
One of the arguments was that the cabbies would tell the foreign journalists what they wanted to hear whether it was true or not, and as such, the taxi drivers and the correspondents were an unreliable source of information.
Nevertheless, I don’t recall if this argument was ever tested at the time.
Spending the last few years away from Kenya, during which I was forced by circumstances to rely mainly on online news publications and social media chatter for news of home, I often wished I could be in a situation to see things for myself and draw my own conclusions.
I wished this because as we all know: “Kwa ground vitu ni different”.
It would seem the Jinn (Genie) of wistful wishes had been watching me and decided to grant my wish to learn more about things on the ground.
I can now say that during the last couple of weeks that I have been in town and reliant on Uber drivers to get me to various destinations, I have come to see for myself the value of the taxi driver stethoscope in taking the pulse of the nation.
For instance, from one driver, I learned that despite some of the very pretty photos posted on social media featuring the Nairobi CBD, one needs to be more on guard and aware of their surroundings than ever before.
“You may be amazed at some of the new buildings or whatever, but don’t walk around with the attitude of a visitor to the CBD,” I was told.
“Instead, keep your wits about you. Don’t accept flyers being handed out on the street and if a street kid comes toward you offering a fist bump, just fist-bump them and keep moving.”
He told me that if a person appears to be frightened of the fist bump offer, the young people see it and will then take advantage of you, perhaps even threatening to cover you in faeces.
As for the fliers, I must admit it sounded like urban legend when he told me that they might be coated with what are known as knock-out drugs, but lo and behold, it seems it is no fairy tale.
I always knew about such drugs as they have been doing the rounds in Nairobi bars for as long as I can remember. I will never forget how a friend realised his drink had been spiked by a stranger who wanted his jacket.
My colleague was drinking at a 24-hour bar that was 200m down the street from our office when his drink was spiked. Fortunately, in his drunken, drugged haze, he had the presence of mind to escape. He ended up literally crawling the last 10 metres to the office, where security let him in before he blacked out at his desk.
Journalism 101 tells us: If someone says it's raining and another person says it is dry, it is not our job as journalists to quote them both and be done with it. It's our job to look out of the window and see which is the truth.
So while I was not going to go out on the streets to see for myself if these allegedly drug-coated fliers were being handed out, I did research such drug attacks and found enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there may be something to the claim.
Published research from 2009, headlined, “Knock-Out Drugs: Their Prevalence, Modes of Action and Means of Detection,” sealed the deal.
The moral of the story is that the taxi driver stethoscope is definitely one way to test the pulse of the nation.