Birthday thoughts on the road to Thika

How the infrastructure of many African states has now shrivelled away

My birthday this year was spent in the mother of all traffic jams on a Nairobi motorway, sprawled on the red velour seat of a 30-year-old Volvo, breathing in car bon monoxide from a hundred throbbing engines. It was meant to be spent at dinner with friends, but fate intervened. Global warming has been messing with East Africa's climate, and although we were still nominally in the dry season, on the evening in question the skies dumped a lakeful of water on the city. A tree, its roots weakened by the flash flood, toppled over on to the Thika Road, a main artery linking a handful of slums with the city centre.

Once the Thika Road was blocked, there weren't many alternatives to try (Nairobi has never been strong on city planning). Unable to move either forwards or backwards, trapped in a metal caterpillar of buses, cars and matatus - Nairobi's signature taxi buses - we sat waiting for something - anything - to shift.

After the first hour, I had moved from fretful exasperation to placid resignation. Joseph, my driver, had switched off the engine and turned up the music: Bob Marley, champion of the downtrodden. There was no point getting angry. I was obviously not going to reach my friends in anything approaching time. It was certainly going to be one of those anniversaries one remembered, just not in quite the way intended.

Out of the fume-filled darkness (Nairobi has never been strong on street lights), the first walkers began to emerge. Abandoning their vehicles, Nairobi's commuters were picking their way through the mud (Nairobi has never been strong on pavements), jumping rivulets, threading their way through the rows of stationary cars, trudging towards the distant slums. Aware that this traffic jam could last all night, they hoped to get some sleep before the morning's rush back into town. First scores, then hundreds, then thousands joined the throng. I hadn't seen so many Africans on the road since the Hutu refugee exodus from Rwanda in 1994.

On the music system, Bob Marley exhorted us: "Get up, stand up,/Stand up for your rights." But these walkers were all in a mood of quiet acceptance. No one seemed shocked or surprised that the transport system in this, one of Africa's most modern cities, had failed yet again. No one complained. There was no road rage. They just wanted to get home.

As the second hour reached its close, and the patient walkers kept on coming, I reflected that this was as good a way to mark a birthday as any. In my 13 years of writing about Africa, part of my time - a tiny fraction - has been spent covering coups and famines. But the real issue shaping the daily lives of those around me, and flavouring my own, has been so much more mundane, and it was perfectly illustrated by this monster traffic jam. "It's the infrastructure, stupid," to borrow Bill Clinton's phrase.

Roads so badly designed that they always flood; motorways so poorly maintained that they constitute a death trap; power cuts as a way of life; telephone lines so fragile that they fizz and die with the first drop of rain; that delightful combination of open sewers and dry kitchen taps: infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.

Get it right, and you barely notice. Get it wrong - and the infrastructures of many African states have now shrivelled away to expose the yellowing bones of colonial-era railways, drains and power grids beneath - and you suck away at the citizen's ability to clean the home, raise healthy children, stay in school, win a job. Try ironing a school shirt in a shack with no elec tricity, or applying for a grant at a cybernet café whose line keeps collapsing. Every step forward feels like wading through treacle.

In Kenya, presidents have come and gone, elections been won and lost, the opposition has replaced the ruling party, yet one thing remains constant: the state-owned infrastructure sucks. Name any innovation that has hugely altered lives here, from the mobile phone to the spread of the supermarket, and they all have one thing in common - they originated in the private sector.

It's not that the Kenyan government is incompetent. Nor that it lacks skilled technocrats to see projects through, or the necessary cash, or motivated parliamentarians, or ministers with ima gination. Ministers here had enough gumption to dream up the Anglo Leasing scam, aimed at stealing $700m from the budget. MPs are among the best-paid in the world, and bureaucrats at the Kenya Revenue Authority have worked miracles swelling the state coffers with funds, transforming Kenya from a tax-dodgers' paradise to a nation of dutiful taxpayers. Had there been a will, a way would have emerged.

Trapped on the Thika Road, I was struck by the thought that the problem was more one of expectations - not so much low as rock-bottom. No one really expects the Kenyan government to improve the infrastructure: not me, not the thousands walking home in the rain, not the donor nations that persist in approving credits to one of Africa's most corrupt states.

No one, in fact, expects the government to do the very thing that justifies its existence. No one, that is, except for Bob Marley, who knew, in his sad wisdom, that we all deserved better.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?