Just doing our job, says matatu crew that got Nairobi talking
Rude, vulgar, nasty, brash, and dubious are words that would be used effortlessly to tell the collective story of matatu operators. If you are a regular commuter on Passenger Service Vehicles, then you’ve probably thought of them as conniving thieves too.
Matatu crews have earned quite a reputation for their unsavoury tendencies; from whimsically hiking fares and hurling insults at their customers at the slightest “provocation” to breaking traffic rules at will.
Sometimes they have gone as far as assaulting their passengers, or, worse, throwing them off moving vehicles. Some have even ended up behind bars for rubbing their customers the wrong way.
This is why the story of one matatu crew plying the Nairobi CBD-Kinoo route was so awe-inspiring when it made rounds on Facebook on Wednesday last week.
On the evening of the same day, we found out why. At exactly 4:30pm, Josphat Maina Mwangi’s van drives through the gates of the National Council for Persons With Disabilities (NCPWD), and Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) offices in Westlands.
This complex probably has more physically challenged people than any other place in the country. The matatu parks near the foyer.
OPENS THE DOOR
Trizah Okudo shuffles from the office with the aid of her crutches. At the door of the vehicle, the tout, James Njau, is at hand to open the door. Slowly, and not-so-easily, Ms Okudo waddles to seat herself next to the driver. As she makes herself comfortable, Njau finds a place for her crutches.
Before long, Hellen Owuor, the front office manager at NCPWD whose gait is more delicate, hobbles up the walkway. She gets to the vehicle and, as if on cue and without flinching, Njau fetches her up and places her next to Okudo.
The driver already picked her crutches and is busy tucking them away somewhere in the back. It looks like something choreographed. A scene from a make-belief film. It is, simply, a spectacle to behold.
More passengers, most of whom will need some sort of help or other to board this matatu, trickle in. They all have different physical disabilities and their walking is impaired at varying levels. So they walk at their own pace, and also take time to settle in.
Many minutes later and we are on the road headed up Waiyaki Way. All of the passengers in Mwangi’s matatu live along the route.
Conversation in the van is light and rib-tickling. A funny remark here, a crackle from the front there, and everybody joins in in the chorus of laughter.
The passengers are teasing each other endlessly. Mwangi and his conductor, too, are not exempt from this jesting. The space is perpetually engulfed in spells of hilarity.
You could easily confuse this for a company van were it not for the familiar maroon and blue uniforms of the crew. Well, and the yellow PSV line running along the length of the van on.
Soon it is time to pay their bus fares. And this is the other fascinating bit. It is only Sh40 — the regular fare they would have paid had they walked a kilometre from their office to the stage to catch a matatu. Soon the passengers start to alight and Njau and Mwangi lend the much-needed hand getting off. At Kinoo, the last of Njau’s customers is home.
“Once I have dropped them off, I am content. I know they are safe because they live just next to the road,” remarks Mwangi.
And that is the way it has been for the last two and half years. Every day, morning and evening, without fail, they have picked and dropped Okudo and her colleagues. Dutifully, as if their lives depended on it.
It is after they have delivered them safely to their destinations that they then rejoin their normal schedule on their route.
Mwangi says that, after carrying Okudo and Owuor one November evening from the ABC Place stage in 2012 and having a casual conversation with them, he was touched by their story of how much they struggle getting a vehicle.
“They told me how matatus stopped only to drive off after recognising their state. I asked what time they left work and we agreed that I would be picking them up at 5pm from work. In the morning they have scheduled times when I pick each at their gates to take them to work,” says Mwangi.
He says he went away thinking about the difficulty they must experience crossing the busy Waiyaki Way to get to the stage and decided to dedicate the two trips daily to getting them to their destination.
This, for him, was an opportunity for internal reflection. “I put myself in that situation and tried to imagine what it would be like crossing the busy Waiyaki Way on unstable feet and arms supported only by artificial aids,” he says.
And the following day when he came to pick Okudo and Owuor from work, much to their surprise, other colleagues too hopped on and that evening he left with a full matatu of passengers from the two institutions.
“When we picked them up there was even someone on a wheelchair and I couldn’t imagine how hard it was for him to cross the road, or, worse, get into a matatu,” he recalls. “And then I decided I was going to walk with them through their journey, if only to make it easier to get by during their commute.
“And here we are! We have become like a family now. We exchange accounts of how our days have been during our rides and even go as far as finding out how each one is fairing in their personal lives. When my wife was sick recently, for instance, I told Trizah and they sent their good wishes and support to her. That is what it has come to.”
When the vehicle is in the garage or when he is engaged elsewhere, Mwangi sends colleagues to pick them up.
But as he acknowledges, he will not just send anybody. “I only ask colleagues I know are understanding, those whom I know will handle these clients with dignity.”
Not every matatu crew would accept to come here, especially when they realise who they are coming to carry, says Mwangi of his colleagues.
“You may not believe me, but as we speak right now there is a matatu from our Sacco that has been suspended for refusing to carry a disabled person.”
The matatu Mwangi is talking about had just pulled up to load passengers at the Westlands stage a few days ago when a passenger living with a disability walked towards the door. The tout looked at the passenger for a few seconds and then blocked him from entering the van because, presumably, he would take more time climbing in and alighting.
Lucky for the passenger, a Sacco manager was nearby and took administrative action.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
That Mwangi and his conductor go against the grain in a business permeated by a negative image is a fact the group appreciates.
“It is not an easy undertaking as they have to be very patient with us. It is an exercise in patience.” Okudo, an administration assistant with APDK, concedes.
“We take quite a bit of time to make our way anywhere. That means that one has to be extremely tolerant with us. Some of us have to be lifted from wheelchairs, and having the heart to do that every day of the week is something else.
“That a tout would be as kind as to wait for me to toddle over to the vehicle without giving me a weird, impatient look or fussing about it was inconceivable until God sent these two our way. They are a support system sent form heaven, these two,” says a bubbly Okudo.
Owuor, who says she has a phobia for crossing roads, explains further: “We have been abused by public transporters so many times… I can’t even begin to tell you the stories.
“Many times matatus crews have slowed down when I wave them down, but then upon releasing that I am clinging onto dear crutches they just whizz by. So when we say we appreciate these two, that gratitude comes from a very special place inside.”
Because of the nightmarish experiences crossing the road to the other side to get a matatu, most of the employees had been forced to pick a matatu going down to Westlands from right outside their gate and make the round trip back up. This meant incurring a double charge.
“We are so thankful, for it is truly a burden lifted,” emphasises Okudo.
“We didn’t know there are people in the matatu industry who would be this kind. They shocked us all. People think we hire the vehicle but are shocked to know that we pay the normal rate as those who board from the roads.”
But for Mwangi, this is only human; nothing to fuss over.
“Surely you cannot refuse to help someone in such need when you have the capacity to. This is something that can happen to anybody, even me and you,” he observes, as his conductor interjects: “We know how hard it is for vehicles to stop for one to cross the road. That alone was enough to make us do this.”
“Quintessential icons of the kinds of matatu crew we would all love to have attend to us” is how Fred Obuya, another one of their special clients who works at the NCPWD as a registration officer, says. “They have defied the implicit reputation of the rest in the same industry.”
Dr David Ole Sankok, the chairman of National Council of Persons with Disability, first witnessed the crew’s kindness on Wednesday morning. “I was positively shocked. It is a thing that the world needed to see and so we took pictures and posted them of Facebook.
“Such are the true heroes of this country and they not only need recognition, but also support,” Sankok, who says he will mobilise resources to get the duo a vehicle of their own as they are just but employees, comments.
“These are men who have demonstrated that they have a heart for the disabled and I would love for them to get a matatu that is designed to carry physically handicapped persons.”