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Traffic madness: The pain of commuters in Nairobi City

Quietly seated on the window seat in an almost empty minivan heading to Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), Joyce Mbithe, who works at a boutique on Moi Avenue, muses at the slow pace other passengers are boarding the vehicle.

She has been in the van for the past 15 minutes and stares mirthlessly at a spot just below a metal railing on the roadside. There is nothing meaningful to see there.

She contemplates exiting and boarding another vehicle. She is running late for work, mainly due to light showers outside. But she changes her mind.

Notwithstanding the drizzle, a group of energised youths noisily bang the sides of the vehicle, calling out to would-be-passengers. Inside the vehicle, loud music blares from each corner while a large monitor strategically at front of the van shows raunchy almost naked dancers gyrating to the music.

“Your peace is literally shattered when you board these vehicles; what with these touts’ noises, the blaring, profane music and the licentious shows on the screens. It’s worse when you’re seated next to an elderly person; I always cringe whenever I board these matatus,” says Ms Mbithe, who is in her early twenties.


“But it is something I have to do and contend with every day; since I don’t own a car,” she says.

She is not alone. Seated two rows in front of her, Ken Mugendi, a student at a campus in the CBD, goes through similar challenges.

“I remember one evening while leaving college; I had an altercation with a conductor in one of these matatus. While boarding the vehicle, they told us the fare was Sh50 to Embakasi. A different conductor, while collecting the fare, asked for Sh70. It turned messy and somehow he had to comply since other passengers backed me,” says the youngster.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, according to the two. “The traffic snarl-up on the road to town, especially from South C stage on Mombasa Road, all the way to the city centre, beats all the other streets hands down,” says Mugendi.

“You could take 15 minutes from City Cabanas to South C stage, and 50 minutes or more from there to town. One could make new acquaintances and lifelong enemies in that time. The drivers sometimes use alternative routes, which are not any better since other like-minded drivers will be on those alternative routes,” he adds derisively.


“Such is the daily hassle — before the main hassle — that we commuters go through each day,” Ms Mbithe says.

The two aptly sum up the challenges that commuters face daily whenever they board public service vehicles plying that route to the city centre.

From the moment one leaves their house to board a matatu, “you get instantly tired even before you start facing the day,” says another commuter.

Indeed, the time spent in traffic snarl-ups from South C to the Nyayo Stadium roundabout and on to Haile Selassie junction and the city centre, leaves one drained, especially on hot days. The sun heats up the interior of the matatus whose windows are permanently closed.

Then there’s the deafening music, it is impossible to make or receive a call in the vehicles. As someone said: “You can’t even hear your own voice”.

The experience is usually augmented by visuals; large screens mounted purposefully in front of the passengers, mistakenly to put them at ease. Even with your eyes closed, you will still see the raunchy images.

It’s worse when you’re seated next to a distasteful passenger, for you’ll run out of other things to look at.

The vehicle’s recklessness in its gyrations to town is heart-rending. The matatu is rushed, driven on sidewalks, splashes muddy water on pedestrians and, when it can, hits nauseating speeds. While zooming on the sidewalks, one gets an uncanny feeling that the vehicle will keel over, its rims screeching sharply on the roadside gutters.


There are also the increasingly recurrent instances where the conductor will delay with your change, claiming to lack “loose money”, even when you’ve reached your destination.

“The push and pull that ensues is appalling. In the end, you may not get your balance since the vehicle will be heaving and revving in readiness for another rush somewhere,” says Mugendi.