By Sharon Atieno Onyango with Ogova Ondego
December 31, 2015
“GPO! Ambassadeur! Town! Fifty shilling! a tout calls out to passengers at the bus stage.
We rush to board the public service vehicle that leaves almost immediately. No sooner have we started enjoying the ride than the conductor starts collecting the fare.
A commuter removes a small purse from her black leather handbag and hands him a 50-shilling note (about US$0.5).
“The fare is 100 shillings (about US$1),” shouts the conductor.
The woman tries to explain to him that he had said the fare was 50 shillings before they boarded it.
The commotion has now attracted our attention.
“These conductors are just con-men, stealing from us as if money is picked off trees,” a passenger seated at the back laments.
“Let him eat that extra 50 shillings and let us see if it will fatten him,” another shouts.
Amid the complaints, we all pay the 100-shilling fare for this is the commuter’s life in Nairobi, where matatu crew grab every chance they get to mint money from passengers who have few options of getting about, there being no formal public transport with fixed fares and travel time table.
During peak travel time—6.30 AM-10.30 AM and 3.30PM-8.30PM—fares often double from Sh40 to Sh100 or even Sh250 (about US$5), depending on whether it has rained, there’s a traffic snarl up or police crackdown on people operating PSVs with questionable ‘road-worthiness’. Such factors lead to a shortage of vehicles in operation and hence the need to double or triple up the fare by the touts.
At such times, we just grudgingly pay whatever amount of fare we are charged.
Passengers gather at the matatu terminus next to Nairobi Railways, monitoring which flashy projectile is slow enough to board. As the vehicles aren’t allowed to park here, though it is a designated passenger pick up and drop off point, the vehicles are in constant motion; only daring enough passenger can board them as they zoom by. Woe unto you if you miscalculate your step; not only are you likely to fall and break a limb but you may also be crashed to death by another vehicle. You won’t be the first nor the last to have lost your life while commuting to or from work in the Kenyan metropolis.
According to statistics, Kenya loses at least 3,000 people annually from road traffic accidents, with half being pedestrians while Nairobi accounts for close to 20% of all accident fatalities recorded.
Without time tables on our perennially jam-packed roads, it is rare for anyone to gt to any point on time. A 20 km trip that should be covered in 15-25 minutes often ends up being covered in three hours or more.
But such an inconvenience forces you into employing some creativity if only to cope; you leave for your destination earlier; send and receive messages on your phone; mark heaps of exam papers; apply makeup on your face or just do anything else that occupies you besides killing your boredom and keeping rage at bay.
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A disturbing thing about most matatu is the ear-splitting and headache-causing noise they make in the name of music. To add salt to injury, some even have display screens which show obscene music videos. It is embarrassing to sit next to a person old enough to be your parent, and watching big bodied Jamaican women dressed in bras and hot pants shaking their buttocks provocatively in the name of dancing.
Any complaint about the loud music or any other issue in the vehicle is usually met with rude answers from the conductor; “If you don’t like the condition of the vehicle, buy yours!”
Many matatu touts are violent and could easily shove you off a moving vehicle, as they have done to people with insufficient fare.
Hygiene appears to be a foreign term to many matatu touts. Dressed in rugged Jeans and dirty shirts smelling of dried sweat and bad breathe emanating from the mouth, touts with blood-stained eyes collect fares from commuters.
Though not permitted to carry standing passengers or to exceed a speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour, the vehicles get away with murder (pun intended!) for just Sh50 or less.
Completely forgotten are the ‘Michuki Rules’ of 2004 that were aimed at bringing sanity to the public transport system.
The ‘Michuki Rules’ were regulations that were introduced and enforced by John Njoroge Michuki, then Transport Minister who said he wanted ‘watu walale’, i.e. commuters to be treated with respect in PSVs. Consequently, matatus were banned from carrying standing passengers, matatu crew had to be vetted and issued with certificates of ‘good conduct’ by the police besides being required to wear uniforms and display their photographs (drivers) in the vehicle. This placed a heavy responsibility on the crew as their documents could be revoked if they stepped out of line.
What’s more; all PSVs had to be fitted with speed governors set at 80km/h and safety belts; retain the single manufacturer’s colour with a yellow band labeled with route number and destination, not play loud music and, most important, not charge whatever amount of fare they fancied.
Commuters rejoiced. For a while. Before disorder crept back on our roads. Eleven years later, we in Nairobi are yearning for a formal public transport system, complete with the popular ‘Michuki Rules.’