Thursday, February 12, 2009

Scenario #19: A different kind of logic

The other morning I called a taxi to come pick me up at the house where I was staying. My friend gave him the directions to get there and asked him to arrive at 9:00. Around 9:00 he called to say he was stuck in traffic but would arrive shortly. Ten minutes later he called asking me to repeat the directions. Was it near Sarit Centre? I said it wasn't far from there, but was even closer to St. Mark's church. In fact, it's on the same street as the church, but at the other end. He said he'd be there soon. Ten more minutes and he called to say he was at the church. I said, great, now just drive to the end of the street and that's where I am. He told me he didn't want to do that because he'd already been driving around in circles for the past twenty minutes. He didn't want to get lost again: couldn't I just come meet him at the church? Well, it's the same road, but it's a good five minute walk from one end of the road to the other, so I asked him to just come to the end of the street. He wouldn't do it.

Finally, I was able to convince him by having the guard speak to him in Swahili, so there must have been some linguistic miscommunication going on, but I found myself still baffled at the fact that he'd come so far but then refused to drive down the street - the same street as he was already on!

In the last few weeks, it seems that the talk of Nairobi has been two recent fires. Several people told me the tale of these fires, and felt they illustrated the same disconnect I sensed in my interaction with George the taxi driver.

The first story is of a supermarket in the city centre. A fire broke out in the store while it was open, with several dozen shoppers inside. As the story goes, the managers were worried that in the chaos pilferers would find their way in and the store's stock would be looted. So they locked the doors. The 40+ people inside all perished, presumably along with the store's inventory.

The second fire apparently could have easily been avoided. As the story goes, there was an accident and an oil tanker was overturned. Somehow in the process, not only did all the oil spill out, but it was concentrated in one area, so the oil ran knee-deep. When people saw this happening, those who had bottles, cans or other containers rushed to the scene to get a bit of oil for themselves. Others called friends and loved once, telling them about the river of oil and instructing them to come at once with cans! Others apparently actually went home to get containers and came back. The police caught on quickly enough and set up a barrier. They didn't stop the looting, but they did try to establish some type of organisation to the process. Did they charge entry? Or did they just limit the number of people who could wade in oil and fill bottles at any one time? Either way, someone who was not admitted got upset and started protesting the abuse of power, and then got irritated at the mad rush of people around him. He pulled out a match and threatened to light it. But apparently the flammable fumes were so thick in the air that the match gently knocked against something, which then set the whole thing off. He died, the cop he was arguing with died, and all the looters died.

The kicker came with some of the reports presented in the Kenyan media. A story like this makes good television, of course. So they interviewed survivors and average citizens, several of whom said that, even though all the looters died in the fire, if there another oil tanker overturned tomorrow, they'd be right there back in the oil river with their bottles!

The logic behind these decisions eludes me. I suspect there is a logic justifying the taxi driver's last-minute resistance, the store managers' preference to lose stock and people to fire than just stock to looters, and the looters' willingness to risk their lives for a coke bottle's worth of oil. Is it desperation or frustration that drives them? Are they trying to make a statement? Is there a value system that is simply quite different from my own? I've met people who argued for each of these explanations, but I am not yet satisfied, I want to learn this new logic!

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