NAIROBI’S ‘MATATUS’ HAVE A MIND OF THEIR OWN? I QUITE AGREE.

The horizon changes from a wide azure-blue expanse to this orange-brown emulsion in the sky as the sun beats a chilled retreat into oblivion, stepping aside for the moon to reign over a cool Nairobi evening. As the day draws to a dramatic close, civilians scurry to their various bus stations and cars to beat that ever-grueling traffic jam. In Nairobi, the traffic jams are like an unpredictable bout of diarrhea  immediately you eat something that disturbs your stomach, you hope that the diarrhea gets to you when you are in the comfort of your own toilet, TRUE? Nonetheless, you succumb to it whenever IT chooses, you know? Same thing, in Nairobi everyone thinks that by either delaying their stay at the office or leaving school super-early, they’ll beat the jam; thing is, they forget that ALL Nairobians are thinking the EXACT SAME THING! Go figure.

Bartenders peep out from the confines of their pubs (wary of the City Council kanjos whose nosiness has cost many a businessman a pretty penny in bribes, free appeasement drinks and such) as if this is a silent, secret signal to patrons that yes, “Kinywaji time!” The more introverted Kenyans board their vehicles, ranging from sleek German automobiles that seduce pedestrians like yours truly with their flashiness, to hopeless jalopies that choke on smoke as they negotiate with their failing engines. Among those proceeding to their various homes are those who board ‘matatus’ and buses to cheat death and traffic jams in a bid to arrive earlier. Anyone who has lived in Nairobi knows EXACTLY what I mean…

Boarding of matatus in Nairobi is one of the most risky yet interesting experiences of my short existence. I remember this one time I was in a hurry for one of my dates and there was no way I was going to make it on time. The ‘matatu’ I boarded was the first I saw and according to me, it was full, so in my mind I was dancing because I knew that this meant little or no stops to pick and drop passengers. Little did I know that the conductor had a whole different agenda in his mind! Anyone who uses matatus in Nairobi knows that the matatu is NEVER full until the tout DECIDES that it is. This is when half his scrawny body is dangling precariously outside the weather-beaten vehicle, hanging on for dear life, his face smack in the middle of a passenger’s armpit. To my shock, the tout kept on stopping at undesignated stops to cram the already stuffy ‘matatu’ with more passengers. I was irritated to no end but sadly I knew that any uproar would elicit the rudest remark from the tout intent on maximizing his profit at the expense of our precious lives (which were only precious to him when they were adding coins to his pocket.) It was as if the vehicle took it upon itself to address my irritation as neatly stuck onto the window of the ‘matatu’ was a sticker emblazoned in red, “Kama una haraka, shuka ukimbie” Translated to “If you are in a hurry, get off and run.” I was silent from then on.

The irony of life is probably best embodied by the Nairobi ‘matatu’.

Honestly, just think about it. Picture this, how many times have you been in a traffic jam, the endless snake-like trails of automobiles in front of you; thousands of drivers marinating in despair and anxiety as they wonder whether they will beat the 8 o’clock deadline either to work or to class and the repercussions should they not make it… Then out of nowhere, you hear this annoying melange of sounds of clanging metals, boisterous horn-tooting and loud reggae music approaching you from behind and you wonder, but how is he doing that? By and by, you see this overloaded jalopy of a ‘matatu’ streaking past you on the sidewalk reserved for pedestrians. It’s always hilarious seeing appalled pedestrians jumping out of the sidewalk to avoid this cocky ‘matatu’ driver, all the while giving nasty facial expressions and even nastier hand gestures screaming “Kichwa hii!”

This is always followed by other motorists engulfed by the jam sticking their heads out to watch the matatus progress or the usual scream of “Argh! You are just adding to the jam! Silly matatu!” Remember that tinge of envy and anger that coursed through your body when you realized that this ‘matatu’ which should ideally be behind you, cheats the logic of equity and overtakes you to further complicate the confusion of vehicles up ahead? Remember how in a moment of heated frustration you piped “Ah! I hope ushikwe! Nyang’au!” All the while praying for the presence of a disgruntled policeman up ahead to apprehend that miscreant of a matatu driver? Yes. That is the short end of the stick while dealing with the matatu industry…

 

Nonetheless, ‘matatus’ do have their importance. Fast-forward two days later, the car got a puncture, nobody can drop you; against the quiddity of things, you have been abandoned to the mercy of the public transport system… You are in a hurry to get to where you are going and reluctantly, you boarded a ‘matatu’ that is cheating death and traffic. There is this snake-like traffic jam that stretches for miles and miles until all you can see is this wide sea of cars in front of you. As the rest of humanity soaks in misery and idleness as a result of the traffic stalemate, the expert ‘matatu’ driver negotiates his vehicle to the sidewalk where it always seems impossible for even a Toyota Vitz to squeeze through and manoeuvres nonchalantly through the snake of cars. You cannot help but feel a tinge of admiration and hope of reaching early as you watch the driver weather the barrage of insults and anxiety of meeting traffic police all because he wants you to be as early as you can be… Well, not really, but his motivation of making as many rounds works to your advantage, which is good enough! Don’t you feel all grateful and proud and maybe, just maybe, you may concede that you could have terribly misunderstood the Nairobi matatu?

There’s always that transient moment of utter gratitude and reflection over the reputation of matatus until upon a slight pause while leaving the ‘matatu’, the tout wittily quips, “Oya! Ni Yesu unangoja? Shuka!” (Excuse me! Are you waiting for Jesus? Get off!” You are violently reminded, this is Nairobi; the City in the Sun where you love to hate the ‘matatu’ but you also hate to love it in equal measure…

*’matatu’- a minibus which is a common means of public transport throughout East Africa.Image

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6 thoughts on “NAIROBI’S ‘MATATUS’ HAVE A MIND OF THEIR OWN? I QUITE AGREE.

  1. Hi there, after reading your article I now have a completely different outlook on matatus. I’d like to share my experience as to why one has to appreciate matatus that much more. Last week I was on my way to my boyfriends house and as usual I boarded a matatu. However, this was a different experience than before because this “special” matatu was COMPLETELY out of shape. The door was always falling off, the passengers’ door had to be tied in a specifc way using a string (meaning everytime we stopped and a passenger went to seat next to the driver, the tout had to adjust his door so that he doesn’t fall off.) I was complerly fumming because I wanted to get to my boyfriends house as soon as possible. As any matatu would do, we picked a passenger on the road side which is obviously illegal because of obstructing other vehicles (to a matatu driver, they see money so why not stop.) The matatu was already full so the passenger had to squeeze next to the driver. My patience was wearing thin but I couldn’t have done anything to speed the process of untying the string from the door and later tying it back. As if on que the tout had to wave to the vehicles behind us asking for their patience as he was tying the string back. I’m currently in the process of getting a drivers license and I knew had I been the drivier of the vehicle behind us I would have been hooting continuously non stop. This experience really made me learn how to practise patience when it comes to matatus because soon I’ll be on the road driving with them and getting into altercations where we both exchange words without achieving anything. As a passenger of the matatu I needed to get to my boyfriends house and even though we took more time than expected, I was grateful to the tout and the matatu driver for the hard work they do throughout the day.

    Imagine being a matatu driver, you always have to deal with police men who are hungry for money and they’ll point out the smallest mistakes just to get it, to deal with your boss who expects a certain amount at the end of the day and failure to meet it brings certain consequences, dealing with rude passengers who are not satisfied with the matatus services and finally the matatu itself which might decide to stall in the middle of the road. Also not to mention the constant hoots from other vehicles and name calling from other drivers. Keeping all this in mind a matatu driver doesn’t earn enough money for what he goes through daily, but that’s his job and he has to enjoy it. He can’t change the status of the matatu to serve better, its not even his meaning he doesn’t care what happens to it, its just a matter of getting the money.

    Concluding, I really have to learn to be patient when it comes to matatus, other people depend on them everyday to get to work, home and other places. Nonetheless, I just have to mention that taking a boda boda is not a bad idea! 😉

    1. It’s SOOO true by the way! I agree, they go through soo much for such little pay, but then again, THAT’S LIFE! House-helps go through even more, gardeners same story, how about watchmen? Life is cruel no doubt, but you don’t relieve stress on other people on the road, you deal with it because on the road, it’s not just your life any more, the stakes are higher because you have 14 other lives to worry about! But all in all, they are part of what makes up the beautiful madness that is Kenya, you know? And in the end, they help us quite a lot.. like if it wasn’t for that rickety ‘matatu’, only God knows whether you would have seen your boyfriend that day. True?

      1. Im sure you’re a aware that they’e only given little pay because Kenya doesn’t protect them and enforce they’re own human rights. I say this because in SA, house helps are paid hourly, they don’t stay at the owners house as they do here, they are protected by law, meaning should you refuse to pay them or should you mistreat them, its the police you’d be answering to (and knowing South African women, that can turn into an UGLY situation.) We can’t really feel pity for them cos we rely on them SO MUCH yet we don’t appreciate them enough, I think its time that Kenyans changed there mind sets. And to answer your question, yes I had to rely on that matatu (as I always do) to go see my boyfriend.

  2. Kenyan government does that in fact. Like on Labour day, their minimum wage rate was increased to 8,700 yes? The issue is that they’r just not smart enough to appeal for their own rights unfortunately. If they knew they had rights, it’d be a totally different story… the problem is not the lack of protection by the government, it’s the lack of knowledge that they are actually protected by the government. In some households, the house-helps don’t actually live with the owners, they leave everyday, and are paid hourly rates, so thats not an issue, it also happens here. If Kenyans changed their mindsets, it would be more expensive to maintain house-helps… They just need to be educated on their rights…

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