Driving to glory in Nairobi
In February 2004, many people in Nairobi failed to turn up at their work stations while others walked long distances to and from work. Still others travelled in crammed trains or on top of such trains from which they fell down and were maimed. All this, contends BOBASTLES OWINO NONDI, was done in the name of supporting the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government’s reforms in the public transport sector of Kenya.
Many public service vehicles (PSV) had withdrawn from the road protesting the new rules in the hope of winning over public sympathy that remained with Transport Minister John Michuki. It is appalling that the rules being fought were all for the safety of commuters, matatu crew and the general public, and bringing about sanity among matatu operators. These included installation of speed governors and safety belts, attaining of certificate of good conduct by the crew from Criminal Investigation Department (CID), wearing of uniforms and identification tags, carrying a limited number of seated passengers, removal of self-imposed stage managers and other exploiting cartels and replacing them with registered employees and City Council askaris, retaining vehicle’s single manufacturer’s colour with yellow band labelled with route number and destination, removal of loud music, regulated fares, and drivers working in shifts of eight hours a day.
Ten months after these attempted reforms, little has changed. The colour on these public transport vehicles, perhaps the simplest of the rules to comply with, is continuously being contravened. Matatus are quickly reverting to the flashy manyanga colours. It is argued that being a competitive business, appearance plays a critical role. Some commuters, who only scramble for the sparkling vehicles ignoring “junky ones”, particularly encourage this. As old, plainly painted matatus stay in the queue waiting for passengers, the most attractive ones make quick trips to and from Nairobi’s suburbs. During rush hours, the colourfully decorated vehicles are saved the trouble of the city centre snarl-ups as they are met with their adorers at strategic points where they fill up and return to the suburbs. With these artistic colourations come portraits of celebrities and slogans.
These could be insulting, inspiring or appreciative words, with others boasting the machismo associated with this industry. Such are “Wicked For Life”, “The Devil You Know! “, “Malcolm X”, “Road Monster”, “Wrath of a Menace”, “Answered Prayer”, ‘Dream Team” and “Ever Blazing.” Unlike the bad old days, however, portraits and names of celebrities gracing the roads are no longer exclusively of foreigners but of local artistes like Nonini, Nameless, Nazizi, Wyre, Jua Kali, Wahu and Prezzo. Acknowledging the magic of these decorations, corporate firms are advertising their companies and products on these vehicles, even compounding the campaign against such fancy paintings. With defiant statements like “The Beat Goes On”, ‘Sound Explosion”, “Mobile Disco”, and “Necessary Noise”, with graphical musical illustrations splashed on windscreens and the insides of the vehicles, music in the matatus has refused to go away!
Although some maintain volume to soothing limits, others still have huge or hugely powerful loudspeakers under the seats, mechanically put within the hull, or in the ceiling with tweeters evenly distributed in the vehicle from which ear-splitting music emanates. This gives the driver additional duties of “spinning the discs”, searching preferred music from the numerous radio channels and looking out for the traffic police lest he be heard playing loud music. Honking remains a hazard that people have to live with. In 2001 Awake! magazine had observed: “The wooing of passengers creates quite a scene. Despite the visible signs on vehicle windscreens indicating their routes, conductors shout at the top of their voices while drivers honk melodious tunes.”
As it was then, so it is now. ‘Freelance’ touts and stage managers who work for any matatu at designated points for commission are still in business despite the government vowing to flash them out of town. The corporate sector joined in the campaign by initiating “Matatu Poa Promotion”. A company came up with television advertisement where a smartly dressed commuter is wooed over by a tout, bundled into an old dustbin, and then hurled down a hill. When he reaches his destination, he is dirty and disoriented. The irony is that this tout is wearing newly imposed uniform thus expected to have reformed. The uniform that was mandatory has become optional depending on the vicinity of the police. Matatu drivers always have a deadline to meet, especially after customers have boarded. Wooing is noisy but courteous than when alighting which must be “faster” ” faster”, even at official picking and dropping zones.
Matatu crew sharing their loot
It is not a surprise if one is forced to alight at the city periphery in the evening as the matatu he is using, perhaps with brilliant colours, popular celebrity’s name and image, and “cool” music, has to pick passengers who have come all the way to meet it in order to get seats. Travelling to suburbs in the morning might subject one to a similar situation. Probably in line with creating Matatu Poa (good public transport), some matatu owners have employed female touts. Although a few women started driving public service vehicles, especially Kenya Bus Services, in 1990s, doubts are being cast on the appropriateness of women being touts in this business that is known for macho acts, and runs for and until long “unwomanly” hours. “In the crowded capital Nairobi, matatus are perhaps as big a scourge as the ubiquitous and often treacherous potholes. Travelling at breakneck speed, pulling over without warning to pick up passengers, defying all the rules of the road and courtesy, they frequently provoke bouts of road-rage in other drivers’ who, when it comes to the crunch, know better than to mess with a matatu.”
Louise Tunbridge had observed in the BBC Focus On Africa magazine in 1998. Even with identification tags, certificates of good conduct and photos stuck on the windscreen ostensibly meant to deter the matatu crew from misbehaving, they have not suddenly turned into altar boys. Racing for time and battling against the intense competition, safety is invariably thrown to the wind. Pedestrians have to be watchful as matatus still speed on the pavements to skip queues. Double yellow lines in the middle of the road do not deter the drivers from overtaking a dozen vehicles at one go, regardless of the proximity of oncoming traffic. Jumping lights, squeezing at the top of other vehicles or blocking other motorists while picking, dropping or joining the road is a prowess all matatu drivers seem to possess. It is not lost on people yet that such manoeuvres provoked an otherwise respected medical professor to shoot at a matatu driver recently, hitting him on the head right in Nairobi’s city centre.
Another driver was shot dead by a General Service Unit Presidential Escort officer on Thika Road a couple of years back for blocking his way while rushing to accompany the President to a state function. If someone says that there is no hurry in Africa, he should not have Nairobi in mind. A recent spot check by minister Michuki and Kenya Police revealed that most speed governors installed in matatus have hidden switches that disable the device when police are not around and the vehicle set to move beyond the recommended 80 kilometres per hour. This could explain why private motorists cruising at 120 kilometres per hour have often gaped in disbelief when they are overtaken by matatus.
Most matatus have their speedometers permanently flat. You are left wondering whether motor vehicle manufacturers only install these calibrations as decorations. One cannot help but ponder over how many things are ingeniously disabled in this industry. If the matatu has lockable safety belts, they must be too long or too short to be of any use. The norm is that these belts are spoilt. But even the usable ones are too dirty to be worn, an indication that commuters have played little role in helping transform this industry. And should the traffic police be spotted ahead, these soiled belts are strapped around at lightning speed. Even fares that shot up with the introduction of these rules have equally been disabled on their way down. Liberation brought by these changes, however, is eminent.
The industry has opened up for other players. New buses and mini-buses such as Citi Hoppa, Merc’s coaches, Blue Sky, Easy Coach, Budget and others are now challenging the then upmarket Metro Shuttle. With all passengers seated, situations where you spend your journey with your face nestled in someone else’s sweaty armpit, or rubbing against women’s behinds and breasts are becoming history. With their current outlook, the matatus, said to have originated from Ford Thames Model “remnants of the fleet used by the British in Ethiopia during the Second World War” have transformed into a multimillion-dollar industry.
Deriving their name from the three (tatu in Kiswahili) 10-cent coins paid per trip during its introduction in the 1960s, matatus are providing an important alternative mode of transport in this region their shortcoming notwithstanding.