Lessons from the Likoni Ferry

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Our man in Nairobi, Jackson Biko, has time for reflection as he waits to board the Likoni Ferry.

If you want to test your patience for life you don’t have to drive in India’s traffic. Just come to Kenya and take the Likoni Ferry in Mombasa. Recently I found myself on a flight to Mombasa, on my way to Diani. There are affordable direct flights to Diani from Nairobi, but those go quickly and you need to book early. Being Kenyan I don’t book early. I wait for the last possible moment to go online and when I find the plane full I exclaim in shock: “Where the hell is everybody going and why are these tickets so expensive anyway?” Suffice to say, I didn’t get a flight and thus the reason I landed in Mombasa to connect to South Coast via the ferry.

Now, the Likoni Ferry isn’t like any ferry service you might be used to in Europe. Ours is for those who want to test their patience, those who seek adventure, and those who want to have an authentic African experience. I simply wanted to cross over and get to my hotel in South Coast. Normally there are three of four ferries plying that five-minute crossing. Traffic is normally fast moving. But lately some new vessels have broken down and consequently the schedules have been messed up. That is a gentle way of saying you might get there to find a long snaking queue and nothing happening.

So there I was, sitting in a taxi, one of the numerous cars and lorries and whatnot waiting to board the ferry. Since Mombasa temperatures sometimes climb to 32 degrees C, you either have to have air conditioning in the car or leave your windows open. But leaving the windows of an unmoving car open is not the smartest thing you can do in that heat, so the taxi guy has to keep his engine running or you sit there and feel your seat turn to water.

I waited for four hours to board that ferry. Unprecedented. Even for me. My emotions swung from anger to disappointment, to thoughts of homicide and back to anger. And then I thought, “Hang on, maybe this is the universe’s way of telling me that there is more to life than locomotion. That maybe I have been stranded here to see something that I normally don’t see.”

And I did see it. You will see it too if you are lucky enough to wait for the Likoni Ferry. You will see the spirit of Mombasa and the spirit of Kenyans.

Sometimes all it takes is to roll down your window and talk to the guy trying to sell you a pair of underwear. Sometimes all you have to do is ask him how many pairs of underwear he has sold that day. Or how he can tell that a customer needs new underwear. Or what his margins are and if selling underwear is more lucrative than selling mangoes.

You will realise that people just want to talk, and that Kenyans especially like to talk to strangers. You will realise the challenges of grassroots commerce and the ingenuity of the lower rung in staying afloat in the most dismal of circumstances and with an amazing good cheer. You will realise how friendly Kenyans are, and how curious they are about you (even if you don’t seem to want new underwear). Who knows, maybe you will make a new friend. Maybe you will learn something that will make you reevaluate everything you know about business and perhaps even about yourself.

The thing with waiting is that at some point crossing over doesn’t seem so urgent. The things that you had planned suddenly seem trivial and inconsequential. You realise that you really don’t need a watch. That plans can be made but also they can be unmade. And the sky won’t fall as a consequence. Maybe you will realise that the underwear you were twisting your nose at in the beginning isn’t actually so bad. The blue colour can match perfectly with your eyes.

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