Ugandan narrates horrifying experience with Nairobi matatus
Travelling in a matatu in Nairobi is no picnic. Not at all. I can attest to that. By all means, my experience with matatu here during my short stay in the city was horrible, to say the least.
I am Ugandan, and a journalist with the Daily Monitor, a publication of the Nation Media Group. I was in Nairobi earlier this year to take part in a media training programme that NMG periodically offers its journalists.
During the first week of my stay, I was picked by a company car, and therefore did not have to worry about the vagaries of the city’s famed notorious traffic jams.
The offer expired on week two, and I was set to confront the beast that is Kenya’s typical public transport. I staggered out of bed in the wee hours of a Monday morning, determined to avoid the jam and get to class on time, on advice from a Kenyan colleague who has braved the traffic for years.
As I approached the Westlands matatu stage, a cacophony of touts bellowing out names of various destinations: “Commercial, Commercial”, “Bus station, bus station,” pierced the early morning chill. I went past a tall man with unkempt hair, wearing a brown jacket; shouting, “Tao, Tao”, meaning town, and got into an unstable-looking white matatu with a yellow line running across the body.
I sank quietly into one of the torn seats at the back, while my neighbour, taller than I was, struggled to fit his legs into the small space. He ended up leaning over the seat in front for the rest of the journey.
Now, for starters, the instant shock for a Kampala matatu user in Kenya, is how dilapidated many of the matatus are. Not that you will find a state-of-the-art model matatu in Kampala, but they are not any rickety as the average one on a Nairobi street. Then there are the graffiti ornamented matatus littered with inspirational quotes from famous personalities and pictures of football stars and musicians. Do I need mention that they are akin to discotheques? I almost lost my sense of hearing, thanks to the deafening music I had to endure to and from class. I also had to contend with the blinding disco-like lights that flashed on and off. Indeed, the Nairobi matatu is a party on wheels.
True, the matatus in Kampala also play music, but the volume is normally just right. In the mornings, the drivers will switch to their favourite radio stations like Akaboozi. Others are football fans and will switch to their favourite football stations, but the volume would favour even your grandmother. If for some reason the driver decides to increase the volume to an intolerable level, the passengers will immediately protest, and since back home the passenger is king, the driver will bend to their will and bring it down. In Kampala, we do not tolerate loud music.
In Kampala, each row in a matatu has three seats, for three passengers. If for any reason the tout feels the need to add a fourth person on one of the rows, he needs to actually beg the passengers on that row to allow him to do it. But in Nairobi, I realised that touts do whatever they want, including overloading. And no, they do not consult anyone.
Anyway, on that Monday morning, the matatu sped off as soon as it filled up, zigzagging from one lane to another in a mad effort to overtake. I cannot count the number of times my neighbour heavily bumped into me as we made our way to “tao”. The ride was rough, no, terrifying, and I could not wait to get to my destination.
A few minutes into the journey, the moody-looking conductor wordlessly stretched out his arm to the back, as though to ask for something, the fare, I guessed.
Touts in Nairobi, I learned, have the impolite habit of picking fare as soon as the vehicle starts to move, unlike in Kampala, where passengers pay up at leisure, often as they approach their destination. I also noticed that tout-passenger spats over fare are common in Nairobi. But I digress, I gave the conductor a Sh50 note and got Sh30 change. The other passengers followed suit.
The silence in the matatu was unnerving. There was absolutely no passengers’ chit-chat or chatter between the passengers and the tout, a common feature of Kampala matatus. Inside a Kampala matatu, men even freely hit on women and vice-versa. Strangers effortlessly strike a conversation with one another without eliciting suspicion. Also, a typical Kampala tout is a Mr know-it-all – he has the latest details about our celebrities to the finer details of complex fraud cases, to news about football stars – a Kampala tout is a moving encyclopedia eager to share what he knows.
The Nairobi tout is the opposite though. Recluse, furtive and moody, sometimes angry. For me, travelling in a Nairobi matatu was such a boring experience, I almost broke down into tears of boredom on several occasions.
The only time the conductor interacted with the driver was when he hit the space above the door with a coin. The first time that happened, I panicked; the sound was so loud and abrupt, I thought we had hit another car or something. But alas! The rest of the passengers were not bothered.
The driver pulled over and a passenger hopped out. Immediately, the conductor exerted pressure on the rusty door and shut it with a heavy bang. The seemingly impatient driver sped off, overtaking numerous other vehicles.
The tout in Kampala will simply tell the driver, “Masso awwo or avayo,” (implying that he should stop or that someone is alighting), after all, the two are at an arm’s length from each other.
To be fair though, our drivers are also impatient, and they too break traffic rules, but not with as much impunity as I saw here.
By the time I arrived at my destination, I was feeling so tired, it was as if I had travelled for hours.
At 6.30pm, I headed back for the bus stop. I boarded the best-looking matatu, which was full in about five minutes. Like had happened in the morning, the conductor asked for the fare immediately the matatu started moving. Again, I pulled out my purse and handed him a Sh50 note, to which he gave me Sh10; he charged me double what I had paid earlier to get to town. I did not ask why, afraid of the reaction I would get.
At home, the conductors usually announce the fares for every destination before passengers board a vehicle. Some go ahead and place posters with fares for every destination on the roof of the matatu, though I deduced that like in Uganda, fares change depending on the hour or the day. At peak hours, they charge higher due to heavy traffic, but at times, the fares are constant.
This time round, I sat in front. The driver held the steering wheel in a firm grip; and drove fast, very fast, trying to beat the traffic. I was speechless. In Uganda, we complain. I vividly recall an incident where we ordered a driver who had been speeding to stop so that we could alight. He did, and we all alighted, and no, we did not pay the fare. Here in Kenya, passengers are too timid, and in their timidity, they allow matatu drivers to get away with murder.
In about 20 minutes, I had reached my destination, but for the life of me, I could not figure out the route to my apartment. I refrained from asking. My Kenyan colleague had warned: “Don’t ask for directions. The people you ask could realise (that) you are a visitor and rob you.”
In Kampala, it’s easier to ask for directions, not because there are no robbers, but because people are more hospitable.
As I stood there, undecided, I spotted a towering building from a distance, near where I had boarded a matatu in the morning. I walked towards that direction until I figured my way home. I nursed my matatu migraine all night!
The next day, I shared my Monday ordeal with the receptionist at my apartment. She did not seem surprised.
“The traffic here is bad, there is also the fact that the matatu drivers have to clock in a number of trips to meet their target, for the day,” she explained.
In spite of the differences, I spotted in our transport industries, ultimately, the joke that matatu drivers, whatever their nationality, have the same mother, lives to its billing. There are many traits that cut across. They all drive like they are possessed, the touts can choose to be rude, the matatus are mostly dirty, and yes, it is indeed a crazy business.
I could say that I am now a veteran Nairobi matatu user, having taken one daily for a couple of weeks.
My experience taught me that to beat the jam, you have to wake up early if you want to get to your destination in time.
I also learnt that matatus are much more affordable compared to taxis here. Another lesson I learnt is that matatus always get there before everyone else. Using unorthodox means of course.
In both cities, the matatus look more or less similar, however, instead of the bold and loud Sacco names written across the Nairobi matatus, such as Walokana, the one I kept spotting, the Kampala matatus have a blue broken line running across both sides.
One admirable feature about the Nairobi matatu is the corridor that exists in-between seats. Passengers bend their way to different seats instead of those at the extreme end folding their seats and alighting for the rest to move out, before hopping back, which is tedious.