You may have to ride a “MATATU” if you go to Kenya (or any of it’s neighbors).You will never forget the experience.Why? Well, you can’t really understand it if you don’t ride it.I mean,we can
say that “MATATU” means “taxi” in Swahili but anyone who’s been to Kenya and traveled in a matatu knows that that really doesn’t sum up the experience of riding in one.
But what is a matatu?A matatu is usually a minibus or some such form of public
transportation in Kenya.Away from the cities, the matatu transforms into a pickup truck,with a
cover on the bed.For a few shillings a piece,as many people as the driver can convince to
squeeze in (or “cram in” if we’re going to be honest),with their baggage, and perhaps some
livestock,can get a ride to where-ever they’re going.Usually baggage is placed on top along with animals such as perhaps some chickens.A matatu is finally full when you have several
people hanging out the back door.
The reason for all of this,of course, is because most Kenyans are quite not well-off and transportation is expensive,so this is how working people attempt to cut down on cost.
A timetable does not exist.You leave when the driver decides that the vehicle is full.Hakuna matata – no problem!Is this the only way that Kenyans travel?NO!Many Kenyans have cars of their own and there is also a bus service.
Matatus are small buses that carry anywhere between 14 and 25
passengers.The vehicles are leased by teams of two: a driver and a “tout”.The tout is responsible for collecting fares; the driver for getting passengers to their destination as quickly as possible.More than 8,000
independent matatus in Nakuru, thepressure to maximize revenue is intense.
Hence the beautiful chaos of
Nakuru’s roads: Matatu drivers will
do anything to bypass traffic — weaving in and out of lanes, hopping up onto sidewalks, chasing ambulances… you know.The usual.They also have a bad habit of disregarding road closures.That is,they still do it,even with the Nakuru county construction crews tactics to prevent matatus from ruining their freshly paved roads.
Without government oversight, it’s left to individual matatu operators to determine their own routes, fares,and marketing strategies.There isn’t any official agency logo and colour scheme for matatus, and with so many of them competing for business,the free market incentivizes matatu operators to brand their vehicles with their own special touch.
It isn’t easy to get commuters’
attention in bustling traffic. It’s even harder to get them to board the vehicle.That’s why,in the cutthroat world of Nakuru transit, there is but one commercial imperative: pimp your ride,or die.
Matatu teams will ornament their buses with flamboyant paint jobs,televisions,and sound systems.Some matatus even have on-board WiFi.But the only surefire way to attract a loyal ridership is to give your matatu a memorable slogan.“Neon lights and graffiti drawings of American rappers or Football stars colour the matatus,along with slogans ranging from ‘Jesus Saves All’ to ‘Baby Got Back’.
Lost in this disorienting sceneGeorge,our team leader is being hauled by two touts,who are trying to convince him to make a choice which matatu to use.Each tout is pulling him towards his matatus.Soon,he makes a decision which doesn’t go.well with the rejected tout.Its time to board the “choosen matatu”I allow myself to be hauled by the bicep into a matatu emblazoned with the slogan ‘We Be Jammin’.My feet are barely inside before the matatu
pulls away.On our way from town to Imani Guest House
Matatus have become a staple of Kenyan culture.And riding in style is one of the best ways a trendsetting young commuter can distinguish themselves from the achromatic hoi polloi.With charming names like “Big Poppa”, “Mada Gascar”, or “Bazooka”, no matatu ride is ever the same.
The matatu system is vibrant and bursting with life.But it’s also
incredibly chaotic.Which makes
In Nakuru, things aren’t so straightforward. Commuters have to figure out everything for themselves.Travelers rely on word-of-mouth to learn where to catch the bus,and which bus to catch.Routes are refined through a process of trial- and-error — an especially tricky task if any transfers are required en route.
Worse yet,even when a reliable
route is mapped out,commuters have no assurances about fares, especially if it rains.According to one Nakuru native, “Matatu fares are more emotional than the stock market,” making Uber surge pricing seem comparatively merciful.
Altogether,it shouldn’t come to you as a surprise that IBM has rated the commuter experience in Nairobi as one of the most painful in the world.Luckily,reducing commuter pain is our modus operandi.It also helps that we’re a bit crazy.
On a different day,we’ve just left town to visit the Lord Egerton Castle.The driver was chewing hard on his bunch of Miraa (khat) while driving like he had an appointment with destiny and
wanted to bring visitors with him. The driving,mark you,was the secondary activity here,not the miraa chewing.Sure enough,we almost ran over a goat in Ngata.Don’t ask if we stopped to give the poor mammal any attention.
Traffic police stop us just past Ngala.One of the cops,holding a G3 immediately inspects the car to check for overload,I suppose.He then goes to the driver’s side and asks for his driving licence.Lo and behold!The license expired sometime mid 2013! and the burger was driving like that? Surely!He was told to step out of the matatu as another cop come by to join the party, walked to the back of the matatu. “Najua
ni hongo wanaenda kuitisha sasa… “I ‘whispered’ to my colleague,Wesley who was half asleep nursing a serious hangover.
As soon as I said
that,it dawned on me that from my now strategic back seat position coupled with the fact that I can’t whisper to save my life,chances were high that I could be heard so I stole a quick glance at the trio and then stared straight ahead.
Immediately,one of the cops came back.Oops!They heard me! I breathed a sigh of relief when
he walked to the front seat. It was not me they were coming for!All in all,it was a strategy to distract our attention as they collected their kitu kidongo(bribe)
There are several experiences that you can gain from matatus in Nakuru.Due to the variety,let me go with one,the tout’s lifeThis is because touts are part of the small-scale entrepreneurs,the sector we majorly we as Balloon do focus on,but purely based on my observation.
Touts can be a real pain.Some have frustrated me more than I care to talk about, but here’s the
sunny side; there are lessons,positive ones we
can learn from them…
1. Optimism/ Seeing the bigger picture
Have you ever gone to a matatu terminus looking to get to your destination as fast as possible?You look around at the busses to see which one
is almost full and board it. Sometimes though,you have to rely on the conductor’s word.Ever
noticed how the bus or matatu always needs only one to four people to get full? “Wanne Kiti,
wanne siste! Gari ya haraka!“You get in,flag down the disappointment of seeing an almost empty vehicle and just sit down when the other passengers give you that face…”Hey we’ve
been waiting like forever…kaa tu ijae” Shock on you when the ‘hired passengers’ alight when the
bus is almost full!Sigh!
Lesson: Maybe they are just a plain lying lot.But these touts always see the bigger picture
even if the situation seems hopeless.As they say,
“Haba na haba hujaza kibaba” You will soon fill the matatu and be on your way 🙂
I’m sure these guys handle a whole load of money everyday. At the end of the day,they need
to have fuelled the vehicle,remitted the owner his share and finally pay the driver and of course himself.To achieve these targets,he must charge the required fare (leave those thieving ones who charge double on seeing a drop of
rain),complete the squads required and keep his pockets under lock and key.Some of these altercations have of course
ended tragically and should never be encouraged.
Lesson: Same way touts don’t accept 10 sweets in exchange for money.Don’t accept it at the
supermarket! know your rights!Oh, and be a good manager of your finances.
What?The number of words these lads say per minute multiplied by the almost 14 hours they work,is impressive!And all this just to convince you to get into their vehicle.They need to earn that wage at the end of the day after all.All you’ll need to succeed in this job is super strong vocal cords,bottles of water and a hand made of steel…to hit that side of the bus seriously.
Lesson: No,the lesson here is not to keep shouting.Wait,actually it is! Metaphorically,that is.Whatever your line of work,it definitely needs
proper attention,dedication and perseverence.Furnish yourself with whatever tools you need to succeed ( super strong vocal
cords,bottles of water and a hand made of ‘steel’), and then work. work very hard!It won’t be long before you see the results.
4. Know the route
Ever met a tout who doesn’t know the different stops by name? No.ok,unless its a newbie.But
newbies are always accompanied by a veteran.When going to a new,destination you always
ask the conductor if they’ll pass this route and if the bus stops at a certain place.They know where they are going.In case of a traffic jam or any other inconvenience, you always hear the tout telling the driver to change the route or overlap.Eh,but these short-cuts are almost always very bumpy you might end up with a aching back or a sore head from hitting the roof every time there is contact with a pothole!(Jonathan can testify)
Lesson: Be clear about your life goals and which stops you’ll probably make along the way.
Sometimes,things happen and you have to take detour.Have a back up plan somewhere.You’ll need it. Oh,and as a bonus,just mentor
someone without conditions?It adds to your knowledge and grasp of work.
5. Know and have a good working relationship with your colleagues.
The driver and conductor gel like….I don’t know.What do people jell like?In short,they get along,and even when they don’t,it never gets in the way of work-at least not that I have seen.
Lesson: Try and get along with your colleagues,you spend half of your day with them anyway.Never let workbeefs get in the way of your productivity.
6. Fitness is Key
I’m sure you are wondering what this is all about.Have you ever encountered a fat oversize tout?Here’s why they need to be fit:
a) That superman thing they do when they run on the tarmac and then ‘fly’ while holding onto that
bar at the door.SMH!
b) Most of the matatu aisles are not very wide…leaving very little room to maneuver while collecting bus fare.I’ll just stop here with this
c) County Council Askaris.You must be swift to dogde being arrested by these nasty guys as you’re always in breach of County traffic rules.
d) Them times when you have had to share the 14th seat with him/her because you are running
late.A fat one would push you until you feel the impact.
Lesson: Take care of yourself.Keep fit.