Delivering the mail to Buru-Buru

The decay of the state and the miracle of the postal service.

Delivering the mail to Buru-Buru
Source: Matatu Culture
By John Ryle  •  April 1996  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Expanded with afterword  •  Posted 2016  •  1,191 words

I was delivering a letter to the father of a friend in Buru-Buru, deep in the housing tractlands of Nairobi East. Night was falling; frogs were raucous in the rain-filled ditches; traffic flow on Jogoo Road was slow as honey; the car I’d borrowed was running out of fuel. I wasn’t lost, exactly, but I couldn’t find the place I was looking for. And I had no driving licence, because my wallet had been stolen.

It had been stolen inside a bank—Barclay’s Bank on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. There were two armed policemen and three security guards a few yards away at the time. Police in Kenya are not known for their probity. To be stopped at one of their saw-tooth road blocks and found to be driving without a licence (or even with one) means a very long delay, or a bribe. And when it came to the policemen in the bank—who had managed to look the other way while I was relieved of my cash—I feared the worst. (And it wasn’t only me. A day later, I discovered, another customer waiting in the same branch of the same bank had been robbed in the same manner.)

So when it came to personal security, as I slowly moved down Jogoo Road, I was on the anxious side of sanguine, fearful of encounters with outlaws and law-enforcers alike. At least I didn’t have to worry about losing my wallet now—it had already gone—but there was a laptop in the bag at my feet in the car and money in the package with the letter I was carrying—more money than many of the people who live in Buru-Buru possessed at any given time. And there was the car itself, which didn’t belong to me.

In Nairobi these days there’s a multitude of stories about car-jackings, highway robbery and traffic accidents; risk assessment is tricky; insurance premiums are high. The city is huge and chaotic. Earth roads outpace the hardtop; road signs are rare. Suburbs expand faster than planners can make maps of them, and faster than services can be provided for the houses that are built. Even Post Office box numbers are hard to come by. According to the Nairobi A-Z lying open on my lap the estate I was looking for, where my friend Richard’s father lived, was, in fact, a swamp. It probably had been one, before the city expanded over it. Richard had drawn me a sketch map showing the way to his father’s house, but it was—well—sketchy. There were no street names, no landmarks, no scale. It showed only the city and the airport. Somewhere between the two he’d scrawled this instruction: follow route of matatu number 19.

Shark or snark?

A matatu is a minibus. Matatus are the principal means of public transport in Kenya, but they seldom display route numbers. Instead they have macho sobriquets stenciled on their rear windows or on their bodywork: Hard Target, they say, Sweet Baby, Happiness, Slander, Down With Homeboys or—subtler and syntactically ambiguous—Tolerance of Ladies. Matatus have devil-may-care touts who hang from the running board, half-cut on miraa, a narcotic leaf. They call out destinations at the stopping points and cram passengers into the vehicle until the wheels are splayed outward and the transmission hangs a few inches from the ground.

The vehicle behind me, a broke-down Nissan combi, was called, with metaphysical ingenuity, Destination. And there was one in front of me called Shark. Or was it Snark? In the dark it was hard to tell Shark from Snark. Nor could I tell if we were on the Number 19 route or not. I followed anyway. There were potholes. The road turned to mud. Pedestrians reared up out of the dark. How to distinguish the brigand from the helpful stranger? I clutched the letter in my breast pocket as I stopped the car and asked a group of passers-by the way. They were Rwandan refugees, it turned out, meticulously polite and helpful (though for all I know they could have been war criminals fleeing accountability for genocide). They gave me precise directions to Richard’s father’s house. This wasn’t hard, in fact. It turned out I was driving right by it.

I clapped my hands outside the gate of the compound and called out “Hodi! Hodi!” Richard’s father came to let me in. The radio was playing in his living room, tuned to the BBC World Service. Later, while we were still talking, to our surprise and pleasure, Richard came on the air from London, commenting on events in their home country, the country north of Kenya from which they are both exiles. It was the first news his father had had of Richard in months. We registered this eerie moment of simultaneity.

“God is good,” the old man said.

The miracle of the Universal Postal Union

And an honest messenger is no bad thing either. Better still, a reliable postal system. To contemplate the decay of government services and civil institutions in a country like Kenya is to be reminded of the miracle of order that is the Universal Postal Union. Certainly e-mail is a great invention; and faxes can be handy; but more remarkable than either of these is the fact that for a century it has been possible to post a letter or package to someone in almost any country in the world and for it to be delivered to them, usually, in days or weeks—and for the same price as a pencil or a box of matches, all without the intercession of modems or telephone lines. (It’s this that makes letter bombs so peculiarly wicked. In the Unabomber’s onslaught on scientific technology he exploited one of the few unambiguously beneficial institutions of the modern world.)

In Kenya today the danger is not letter-bombs, it is theft and neglect. Here, as in too many other African countries, loss of confidence in the postal system, mistrust of the police and the failure of municipal authorities to keep pace with the growth of cities are all of a piece. They are auguries of other kinds of trouble in the body politic. ★


A letter of protest to the Guardian from the Kenyan High Commissioner suggested that my eyesight was faulty: matatus in Nairobi, he asserted, were clearly marked with their destination. It must be a while since the High Commissioner rode in a matatu. He also accused me of consorting with subversives. But Mulana Mulla, the Sudanese exile I was visiting in Nairobi is a respected lawyer— and a legal resident of Kenya. The High Commissioner’s letter did not address the main issue: the decay of Kenyan public security. Governance and administration in Kenya continue their long decline, as any Kenyan citizen will confirm, who is not a diplomat or a politician. I should have noted, though, that the postal service in Kenya is still relatively efficient, though my friend Richard may well have been wise not to entrust money to it.