The process to get a driving license in Kenya is simple: take lessons from a driving school, register for an official driving test, pay the required fee, complete the theory and practical portions of the driving test, and, upon completing the test successfully, pick up your driving license from your driving school. Like most bureaucratic processes in Kenya, the simple, step-by-step process is never smooth.
I registered with Rocky Driving School, took 30 concise lessons on the road, and scheduled my driving test for 16 March 2017. I spent an average of 10 minutes driving per lesson. I was obviously unprepared, but I was told not to worry by people who had been through it—the part of the driving test that would require me to be on the road would be as brief and insufficient as the lessons.
The test day was long and hot. On arriving, I, along with more than 100 other test candidates, was sent to photocopy my official documents in a shack by the side of the road, outside the official testing facility. My documents were lost in the chaos. By the time I got replacements for them, the officers administering the theory part of the exam had disqualified two young women from completing their tests. These same officers hardly glanced in my direction as I explained my way through the theory section.
Then, it was on to the practical section. Several of us were crammed into the back of a red lorry whose cabin we would hop into in turns for the driving part of the test. At the back, we nervously went through the process of starting a manual car up, and I realized everything I was going to do was wrong in one way or another. I was incredibly grateful for the chance to study with people who knew more than I did. We would arbitrarily decide who’d go next when whoever was in the front was done, and would collectively hold our breath whenever our fellow candidates would fail to start the lorry up, and would look at them in pity when they returned to the back of the lorry having failed this part of the test. They’d complain, saying that the officer deliberately set them up for failure.
When it was my turn to drive, I feigned confidence as I strapped my seatbelt around my waist and adjusted the seat. The female police officer next to me held a stack of papers, and she asked for my name and pulled out my documentation after I told it to her. She was visibly tired, leaning her head into her headrest as she yawned, and then told me to start the vehicle. On the passenger side of the cabin where she sat, she had her own set of pedals, and I saw her slowly lift her foot off the brake pedal. The first two times, I could not start the lorry. We only had three chances to get it right, and she must have felt pity for me as she asked me whether I had disengaged the handbrake, and I realized I had not, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I pressed the handbrake down, grateful that it was not anything to do with the complicated matter of when to step on the clutch pedal—after all the discussion in the back of the lorry, I was slightly confused, not sure whether to step on it before or after turning the key in the ignition. When the lorry finally started up, I almost rammed it into neatly arranged piles of charcoal in plastic containers on the roadside.
Despite it all, I passed.
After the test, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) issued those of us who passed a provisional driving license (PDL) that was valid for three months while the driving licenses were being processed. We were instructed to collect our driving licenses from the driving school. Rocky Driving School gave us a number to call to collect our licenses.
I left Kenya and did not return until October 2018.
On returning to Kenya, I called the number Rocky Driving School had provided to find out when I could pick up my license. The person who answered the phone asked for my name and national ID number, which I provided, and then placed me on hold to search for my license. After a few minutes, he returned to the phone and said he could not find my license, though he found one that belonged to someone who shares my surname. Undaunted, I decided to go to Rocky’s administrative branch. Perhaps being there in person would yield better news.
The next day, I arrived at the administrative branch in the afternoon, and told the receptionist that I’d come to collect my driving license. The receptionist called another man into the room, who came in smiling, setting into his skin a sprinkling of wrinkles around his eyes and forehead. I explained to him my situation, and he remembered our phone conversation. I handed him my national ID and he left the room, still smiling, back stooping slightly, to search for my license again. He returned with the license belonging to the other woman who has my surname. I told him that it was not mine. He told me that I needed to go to the NTSA inspection center on Likoni Road with a passport photo and PDL and look for Abdi, whom he cheerfully told me would be able to assist me in less than 15 minutes. If I did not know where the inspection site was, he added, I was welcome to accompany him there the following Tuesday at 8 a.m. I wondered what the inspection center had to do with licenses, but I said okay, and left.
When I got home, I tried to log into eCitizen—a government portal that manages bureaucratic processes—to download another copy of my provisional driving license. For some reason, I could not re-download it. I called the NTSA hotline, and after a long wait I was told to go to the NTSA offices in Upper Hill to have the issue sorted out. A few days later, I went there and joined a suspiciously short queue that was forming under the window where driving license issues were sorted. I was grateful I didn’t have to join the long queue forming under the “TIMS account issues” window, whatever a TIMS account was. The man behind the window asked for my national ID, and said that I had taken a while to collect my driving license, and a minute later, scribbled my driving license number on a small scrap of paper which he handed to me. “Your driving license is with your school,” he said. “Go ask them where it is.”
Frustrated, I stepped outside the offices into the sunny day and called the driving school number that I’d called before. I told the same pleasant man that I’d been to NTSA and that they said the driving school had my license. We went through the process again: I provided my name and national ID number, and he put me on hold to search for my license. He didn’t find it. He repeated his previous instructions: go look for Abdi on Likoni Road. Now not only frustrated, but hot and thirsty too, I stood in the NTSA parking lot, until a security guard came and told me that I could not stand aimlessly outside, so I left.
The NTSA offices are located in Upper Hill, a place that is a maze of roads with no discernable way out. There are also no buses or matatus there, but knowing that it is relatively close to the CBD, I chose a random direction and decided to follow it, hoping that I would see familiar roads soon. I did, and made my way into the CBD, where I took passport photos, and had two beers, before heading to the NTSA inspection center on Likoni Road.
The inspection center was unimpressive. Instead of offices, it has an inspection shed, and I worried that I was going to struggle to find Abdi. I found Abdi behind a desk in a shared office. There were a few people ahead of me to see him, and thankfully, there were plastic seats there, so I wouldn’t have to stand. I got to Abdi and explained my problem, and he told me that I should create a TIMS account from the NTSA website, and then come back to have my photo taken for the new-generation driving license, since they were not processing the old red ones which would have required the passport photo I took. I did not know what TIMS stood for, but I did not bother asking. I went home and tried to open a TIMS account, first by trying to log in via eCitizen, only to see 404 error page not found. I then tried to log in with my national ID serial number, but the system did not recognize it. I emailed the TIMS support to tell them this, but did not receive a reply.
Two weeks later, I was back at the NTSA offices in Upper Hill, lining up in the “TIMS account issue” queue. It was a long line. I joined it at 12:28 p.m. Just as I was about to plug my earphones in and listen to a long voice note from a friend, two men tried to slyly slide their way into the queue before me. I was torn between letting it go and raising my voice, wondering if it would be worth the energy. I decided to ask them if they knew what they were queueing for, and if it was TIMS, that the line was forming behind me. They pretended they weren’t joining the line. I finished listening to the voice note. The line inched forward. Behind me was a man who kept brushing up against me. I tried to think about how to make myself take up more space such that it would not be moved into. This was impossible, given that there were several other queues and people were constantly weaving in and out of the TIMS one, which happened to be the longest. Many other people were brushing up against me. At some point, I noticed that two queues facing opposite directions appeared to have merged where they met because there was no space for them to form anymore.
A woman in fatigues and red braids carrying a gun came down the queues, telling us that we were to pay for NTSA services at the official counters and should ignore anyone who asked us for money while we were in the queue.
I got to the front of the line at 1:56 p.m. I handed over my national ID to the man behind the counter and explained that I could not sign up on TIMS. He did something on his computer and, seconds later, told me I could now create my account. I spent less than a minute at the counter.
On returning home, I used my ID number to create a TIMS account. The NTSA will use the details I put up there to prepare my new-generation driving license.
I am still yet to go see Abdi again, who said I should go with KES 3,100 to process the new driving license. Perhaps my driving license, the old red kind that is being phased out, is floating around somewhere in Nairobi. Perhaps, once I’ve recovered from the exhaustion of this bureaucratic nightmare, I’ll arrange to pick up my new-generation driving license.
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Michelle K. Angwenyi