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BLOG: Day I almost died in a rickety Nairobi Matatu

By THOMAS RAJULA September 7th, 2015 3 min read

Last week there was a photo doing the rounds on social media in Kenya; it is shows a brand new Bugatti Veyron that a well-to-do Kenyan has imported. Pure admiration from this end, make no mistake, because it just goes to show that my compatriot is living his dream.

Compared to the rest of us, who have to jostle with fellow countrymen (and women) for ‘public’ modes of transportation, this good fellow will not have to put up with being pushed, stepped on, listening –and watching- to sexually explicit music while sitting next to an elderly lady, being thrown about at potholes or bumps, emergency braking due to reckless speeding, and not occasionally having your outfits ripped by worn-out seats.

So to “Mr Bugatti”, and all the other Kenyans, making your money and progressing in life, I salute you. Yes, even the Subaru owners are counted.

That photo made me look at my life and have something to aspire to, considering the abominations that I have sometimes been using to get myself through town.

Case in point, a number 46 “Nissan” I recently boarded that was bound for Kawangware. Just to let you in on the lingo, in Nairobi “matatu” is usually used when referring to a mini bus, usually a 25-seater vehicle. “Nissan” refers to vans, maximum legal capacity being 14 passengers.

So on that fateful hot afternoon, I was at Valley Road and needing to head up to see a friend at Kilimani area. At the stage outside All Saints Cathedral, I found a line of about six “Nissans” and two buses heading my direction.

Unfortunately, the buses, which I actually preferred taking to the smaller vehicles, were both virtually empty. And even though economically they made sense (they were charging Sh10 cheaper) I don’t think you can put a price on time wasted.

So, I got into this blue van, which was the next in line to fill up, because the vans were filling in turns. The first red flag for me should have been the unstable seats. They rocked with such ease as you tried to steady yourself coming in, you might as well have been the one steadying them up, rather than the other way around.

The upholstery on some of them was almost non-existent, it’s a miracle I made it out of the vehicle without tetanus infection. It didn’t take long before the seats were filled up and we were on our way.

That’s when I noticed the rust-shut-windows, which made it cook hotter than an oven inside this relic of a vehicle. There was virtually no air coming in, and jackets and all pieces of extra clothing kept coming off the passengers in sequence like a symphony.

Coming up on Valley Road, there was a certain noise coming off the engine that warned us we might not make it up the incline after all. The engine raved like we would soon be doing 180kph, but the matatu’s pace had slowed to that of a fast walk, and vehicles were whizzing by us. We seemed to be going nowhere loudly.

Then trouble. By the time we were just about getting to the top of the valley, traffic had built up and we were stuck, with just a little clearance of the rise left.

Traffic was clearing at the front, and so the driver readied the vehicle to move when the one in front started going. It moved, and our driver gunned it. For some reason, however, I felt like we were moving in the opposite direction.

The vehicle was moving forward, don’t get me wrong, but we in the backseat were rocking backwards. Then I felt a gentle breeze at the back of my feet, then at the back of my neck. Then the matatu braked, and was followed by the slamming of the boot behind us.

It was at that exact moment that I, and my fellow “backbenchers” realized what was happening. We looked at each other still in disbelief.

Firstly, the boot had no lock. Secondly, the wobble of the seat and our combined weights, were enough to open up that boot to a considerable gap.

It made me wonder what would have happened had the distance to the top of the valley been a few more meters; would we have gone all the way down and kissed the tarmac? I wasn’t going to find out either. Soon as we got to DoD, at Hurlingham, I was off an waited on the next bus.

Saddest part is that this vehicle did pass an inspection at the traffic cop’s shop. I guess we too are passengers on “beasts”, just not sure what kind ours are.