Freedom Fone takes off in Nairobi

Today Tina and I were scheduled to fly back to Harare from Nairobi. We’d had a busy, productive few days: interviewed staff at 3 organisations currently deploying Freedom Fone, visited communities in the field and installed v2.S.4 with a Huawei dongle for a user whose service had gone down due to a damaged MobiGater.

Things started well enough this morning, getting up in good time to catch our 6.15am taxi to the airport. Only it didn’t arrive as expected…

The staff member at the entrance to our camp assured us that the driver was minutes away and would arrive ‘any time from now’. 20 minutes later it began to dawn on me that our taxi driver had miscalculated badly and was stuck in Nairobi’s infamous traffic somewhere between Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and our camp. This looked like it could turn into a nail-biting race to the finish.

Hoping to maximise his takings, our taxi driver had decided to accept an earlier airport transfer from the camp prior to his rendezvous with us at 6.15am. Determined not to lose our business he waited until the 11th hour before conceding he wasn’t going to get to us on time. His backup – a taxi colleague called Justin – arrived in a Toyata sedan at the camp at 6.40am.

Cognisant of the late hour and the congestion on the roads to JKIA, Justin elected to stay off Ngong Road and use a nearby bypass – an unsealed road under construction running alongside the outskirts of Kibera slum. He wasn’t alone in his choice as lots of other motorists had the same idea.

This leg of the journey provided a glimpse into life amidst the rubble and litter that characterises life in the slum. School kids in clean uniforms picked their way along paths through the rubble and heaps of plastic and other rubbish. In certain sections red dust billowed from the passing traffic, almost totally obscuring the children as they navigated the margin of the road.

Cars we were following had formed 2 to 3 lanes of traffic, leaving little room for the sparse oncoming traffic. Construction vehicles were interspersed in the traffic, slowing everything down as they lumbered along the road. Justin’s sedan battled over the ruts and humps, scraping the ground occasionally, eliciting soft curses from him whenever it happened.

Actually, Justin was remarkably calm considering the manoeuvring he had to do to make it to the airport on time. Remarkably - in all the jockeying – I never heard a driver honk their horn in protest or frustration.

Eventually the bypass intersected with Ngong Road and Justin had to find a way into the heavy traffic. With enough determination it seems you always find a friend in the traffic, someone who will let you in, knowing there is no other way to merge this kind of traffic.

We inched along in the press of vehicles until another opportunity to use a ‘bypass’ presented itself. We turned off onto a dreadfully eroded dirt road where progress was even slower – it was worse, much worse than the first bypass. Sensing our concern Justin assured us we’d get to the airport on time. Crawling along – on one occasion even reversing to get around a large depression – we continued in the direction of the airport. Traffic wasn’t the problem – the road was!

Finally we joined the Old North Airport Road, squeezed into the traffic and picked up speed. It looked like we were still in with a good chance of catching the flight. Until…

We experienced the unmistakable faltering of a car running out of fuel or a carburettor choking on dust. Looking over at the fuel gauge on the dashboard I noticed the needle on empty as Justin pulled over to the side of the road. Seriously? He revved his engine loudly once then turned it off and got out of the car. I had half a hope there was a canister of emergency fuel in the back, but though he walked to the rear of the car he didn’t stop to open the boot. He made a phone call, returned for his smokes and then left without a word. There was no doubt he was going for help, but with the time now 7.40am we were running out of wiggle room to check in for our 9.15am flight.

I couldn’t believe that he’d been able to avoid an accident in the press of traffic, keep his sump and axles intact on the bypass roads and then run out of fuel 20 minutes from the airport.

What to do? Using my phone I tried to check in online hoping this would save us some time at the airport but by this late stage online check-in was no longer available. Tina called our camp and asked them to contact Kenya Airways and advise them of our troubles. They advised us check-in would close at 8.20am. It was now about 7.50am and Justin was nowhere to be seen.

Ever resourceful, Tina scanned the buildings around us and noticed the Panari Hotel in the vicinity. She suggested we google their contact numbers, give them a call and ask them to dispatch a taxi in our direction. Good Idea!

But… Not a single number on their website was current.

As the clock showed 8.00am Tina declared that it was time to hitchhike the rest of the way to the airport. She wrote ‘AIRPORT’ on a sheet of paper in her notebook, got out of the car and walked in the direction in which Justin had disappeared. Holding the sign up to face the traffic she waited to see if someone would stop and give us a ride. She had barely begun when Justin reappeared with a 5litre container of fuel. Back to plan A. We poured in the fuel, hopped in the car and rejoined the traffic. Justin was adamant... there was still time to make the flight.

We hadn’t gone far when the vehicles around us slowed to a crawl and then stopped... for at least 5 minutes. Turning traffic up ahead had backed up, blocking the lanes in the direction of the airport. The road just beyond was clear, but first we had to wait for the knot ahead to unravel. Honestly it didn’t seem it was in our cards to fly home today.

Then we were on our way again, driving as fast as the car could go, until, within spitting distance of the departure terminal, airport security waved us down. Looking in at my wild, desperate face the guard was easily convinced to wave us on, and driving the last 500metres or so we were finally There. Well, we’d made it to the outside of the departure terminal. We still had to feed our suitcases through the security checkpoint, pull out laptops blah, blah, blah. When we finally arrived at the check-in counter it was about 5 minutes after check-in was supposed to close. Unsurprisingly the ground staff refused to check us in. Our time was up.

Happily the story doesn’t end there. When pressed for a Higher Authority, the check-in staff directed us to the office of the Duty Supervisor at the other end of the concourse. I raced to the other end, passports in hand and was lucky to find a helpful, compassionate, flexible woman who saw there was just enough time to get us onto the flight. What a relief to be spared all the costs and delays associated with missing a flight – especially as there is only one flight to Harare from Nairobi most days.

To my enormous surprise and delight, not only did we get onto the flight, but so did my suitcase! All thanks to that helpful woman, and of course to Justin the taxi driver who wouldn’t give up and kept hope alive.

Tina holding her hitchhiking sign.

Tina holding her hitchhiking sign