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My painful matatu ride home in the Covid-19 curfew era – Francis Nderitu

After a long day in these busy streets of Nairobi, I wrap up work at around 5:30pm and head to my stage along Munyu Road for Nagiru Sacco, plying the Town-Ruiru route.

There is a short queue initially as the passengers wait patiently for the next available means to get home after a hard day’s work.

As more people arrive, most passengers refuse to board the available matatu after it hikes fares to Sh150 from the normal Sh100, even as a few who are in a rush to get home jump to the front of the line and commit to pay the exorbitant fares.

With the 8pm curfew imposed by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19, a majority of commuters have been finding it hard getting home either by public or private means.

A number of Public Service Vehicles (PSVs) have opted to reap mega profits from the chaos created by the curfew hours to hike fares due to scarcity of matatus ahead of the curfew.

Many even carry excess passengers, while some have since stopped providing sanitisers to passengers and most times the driver and conductors are spotted without a mask.

As more matatus arrive at the stage, it becomes abundantly clear that they are all intent on charging the hiked Sh150 fare to ferry passengers to Ruiru, on the instructions of one route manager only known as Davy, who seems hellbent on enforcing the new fare.

Loud complaints from the agitated passengers are only met by “Mwenye ako na haraka apande gari mwenye hana haraka angojee ya mia” from Davy.

A few of the commuters, who are afraid of being caught outside by the ruthless police when the clock strikes 8pm, painfully board and leave for their homes.

A young man walks to the front of the queue to establish why it is not moving yet there are a number of PSVs ready and waiting to ferry passengers home. Suddenly a commotion ensues after he courageously closes the doors on one of the matatus and tells the matatu operators to leave the stage if they are not willing to bring the fares back down.

A matatu destined for Ruiru with all seats filled in violation of Covid-19 protocols. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU

Davy alongside some of the touts and drivers confront the courageous young man hurling insults at him while menacingly telling him, “Unafunga mlango wewe kama nani”, “Hii shimo (stage) sio yako”, “hutatuambia vile tutalipisha fare hapa!”.

Passengers then crowd near the said matatu to back up the man demanding the fare reduction, but the matatu operators are unbowed. A shouting match ensues between the two opposing sides. Stalemate.

The touts and drivers employ their menacing gang-like tactics to threaten the young man into submission alongside those supporting him. One by one the passengers are scared back to their mute mode. They return and form a queue again, subdued.

An irked Davy is still going at the brave young man. The now downcast passengers have no choice but to board at the hiked fares, while some look for alternatives to get them home.

I opt to also go and check what other Saccos plying the Thika Road route are charging. Runa Sacco, Nawaku Sacco, Eastleigh Circular Sacco all seemed to be reading from the same Sh150 page with no mercy on the stranded lamenting passengers.

I am forced to board a matatu destined for Juja then connect to Ruiru from there and pay Sh100. However, it is ferrying passengers at full capacity, zero social distancing, zero regard for Covid-19 protocols ordered by the government.

A defiant passenger who refuses to make room for an extra person to squeeze between her and the next passenger is menacingly told “Mama hapa tunalipisha gari mia, tafadhali songea mwenzako ama ushuke!”. She yields.

What I notice is that a number of Saccos are taking advantage of the mad rush home by Nairobians as the curfew hour approaches to charge high fares and carry excess passengers to cash in on the panic situation.

In my ride home along Thika Road, I notice many more matatus with all seats occupied.

We even drive past the Pangani police station as we approach the Juja Road-Ring Road Ngara junction, and stopped at the red lights as a police officer walks past our matatu but does not even stop to check the number of passengers on board.

I quickly realise as passengers we are on our own in our misery at the hands of matatu operators and the police could care less about the adherence to Covid-19 regulations by the public transport sector.

This chaotic state of things in the matatu sector is doing very little to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Nairobi, even if a number of passengers are wearing their masks properly inside the matatus.

I have noticed a number of police officers on the road during early morning hours checking matatus for excess passengers but in the evening it is everyone for themselves and God for us all.

As I reach home in one piece but frustrated and exhausted, I ask myself: Have we as a society resigned our fate to being extorted, lied to, taken advantage of and scared off easily whenever we voice our sentiments?

With no unity and bravery, matatu operators will continue to fleece us with little reprieve from the authorities that are supposed to see to it that our rights are not trampled upon.