28 April 2011

Behind the Wheel

Driving in this city can be a dangerous prospect at worst... while only precarious and frustrating on the good days. We certainly never take safety for granted.

It isn't that there aren't traffic laws to follow. There are. But it seems that many tend to consider them optional suggestions... to possibly consider... if you are in the mood... if you have time... or if it is convenient for you...

My theory is that this is so because there aren't the resources to enforce the law. In other words, there may be a policeman standing at a traffic circle where a driver goes out of turn without signaling, cuts someone else off causing them to swerve into the car beside them. The policeman blows his whistle - but if the violating driver doesn't stop when the policeman blows his whistle, then the two cars who collided are left to figure things out and most often, the policeman is not going to chase or track down the violater. Thus, there are few, if ever, any repercussions for breaking traffic laws.

Reality? You are more likely to get a citation for failing to signal or not having all of your paperwork in order than you are for running a stop sign or stop light, for speeding or for crossing the median and driving the wrong way down a divided road simply because you don't want to drive the extra 500 feet for the "legal" turn around. The rule that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is perhaps the only rule rigorously applied... that and the fact that the only time I've regularly seen Nigeriens hurry is when they are behind the wheel. Most everyone insists on their priority: their right to turn first, their reasons to drive around a traffic jam on the sidewalk or  the wrong side of the road regardless of how many they "cut" in line or who else they might inconvenience, their desire to greet someone and in the process stopping all traffic behind them until they are through with their conversation... and the examples could go on and on...

The other day, I approached a locale where the military was stopping all traffic. Someone in the government was getting ready to travel by vehicle, and so road blocks were created to give the dignitary quick and easy right of passage. And the place where I stopped was right by the entrance to the presidential palace. Now, no one was actually entering or leaving the palace, but I didn't think it wise to block the entrance, so I stopped leaving clear access as did the man in the traffic lane beside me. We sat there for several minutes, traffic piling up behind us and then the man in the Land Cruiser behind me started honking his horn. I didn't figure there was anywhere I could go, so I ignored the honking and just sat and waited... rolling the window down and turning the car off to conserve gas since it was looking to be awhile. After several minutes and several honks, the man got out of his car and came up to me. He was in a hurry and wanted to try another route instead of the one that was blocked, so he wanted me to move up - blocking the access to the palace - and giving him room to pull out, turn around and go on his way. As we discussed this, over several minutes, he readily agreed that it was wrong to block the palace entrance and that I mostly likely should stay where I was, but since he really needed and wanted to get on his way, I could go ahead and move forward to make it possible for him.

Yes, I know I have a stubborn streak - but this man kept insisting and I continued refusing to comply, not because I just wasn't "gonna give," but truthfully, because it did not seem wise and I knew it wasn't legal to move forward - in a country where stopping in the wrong place has resulted in the military shooting first and asking questions later, I was not, under any circumstance, going to willingly block the entrance to the presidential palace.

He finally tried one last tactic... I could move forward, he'd pull out and I could then back into my place. When he offered that suggestion, I gently said somewhat ruefully, "Sir, I've lived and driven in this city for 10 years now. If I pull forward for you to pull out, everyone behind us will fill in that space and I will be trapped and unable to back up. He finally smiled, laughed and said you have every reason to say that, guess I wait,... and began heading back to his car to wait just like everyone else.

Lately, while I've been driving, I've been reflecting on the fact that the things I see happening while on the road here in Niamey often reflect our human nature- our sinful and selfish "me-first-and-above-all" desires- unchecked, unchanged and undetered by the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit. Without law and consequences for violating the law, drivers in this city (and probably everywhere else) simply do what is right (and that often equates to what is convenient and self-serving) in their own eyes.

It is scary, too, how quickly I can find myself slipping into those same types of behaviors, justifying them with some mildly modified version of "well, if everybody else is driving that way..."

What situations do you see in your daily life that clearly reflect that men are sinners by nature and that without the mediating presence of the Holy Spirit, each one selfishly does "What is right in his/her own eyes?"

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