The jostling as we boarded the matatu was normal. Impatient Kenyans forever in a hurry to get nowhere. The matatu terminus was filled with public service vehicles, 14 seater Nissan mini vans, most of them recently painted with yellow strips, a result of the tough new regulations that had been put in place to bring some semblance of sanity in the chaotic transport industry. A few 25 and 30 seater matatu dotted the terminus. ‘Fire Station’ terminus was one of the many in Nairobi’s Central Business District. Other termini were well spread out to cater for the increasing number of commuters in the city.
The terminus was a sea of humanity bustling with activities: hawkers out to sell their wares, uniformed bus conductors (touts) shouting for passengers, crooked queues for certain organised routes, passengers jostling for other disorganised routes. It was a poorly lit area. Insecurity was never a major issue, mainly due to Kenyans love for street mob justice. Petty thieving like pick pocketing was, however, rampant. Despite the maze, commuters had no problems locating the vehicles at their service.
“Watch where you are going,” I shouted at a short man who had cut in between my wife and myself, thus interrupting what we had earlier planned. I clutched my wallet tighter to guard against marauding pick pockets known to prey on unsuspecting commuters. “Mannerless creature!” I muttered.
“Nairobians!” cursed my wife as she swore at the overcrowding that she was part of.
The matatu filled up and the tout lazily signalled the driver to get moving. It was astonishing to see a tout so tired so early in the evening. They were famous for their daring antics, boundless energy, creative vulgarity, and annoying obstinacy. Their colourful language and dare devil attitude ensnared young girls, thus making touts amongst the most admired and loathed men in the country. Parents detested them for obvious reasons, while young school girls glorified them for their machismo.
Before the driver could drive off, a well dressed man moved to his window. There was a brief silent conversation, some exchange of money and the driver started the vehicle. The terminus was illegally managed by clandestine groups like the dreaded Mungiki who collected contribution from each vehicle that used the terminus. The amount ranged from daily to monthly payments. Refusal to pay often led to dire consequences, some of them fatal. It is an arrangement that the Government had conveniently turned a blind eye to, acting toothless as the Mungiki became more daring.
“Seat belts!” commanded the conductor. We all knew what that meant: belt up or alight. Passengers grumbled as they belted up, all aware of the consequences of not obeying the stringent rules that had been imposed on all Public Service Vehicles by the Ministry of Transport. Some of the belts were either too old or of inferior quality. They looked more like school bag straps. The old and worn out seats in the matatu were a proof that maintenance was not high on the priority list of the vehicle owner.
Off we went from Tom Mboya Street, the driver, skilfully and at times frighteningly, manoeuvring through the chaotic Nairobi evening traffic which was, expectedly, heavier during month ends. The passengers were quiet, each conversing with their thoughts and watching the slow progression from the buzzing Tom Mboya Street to the bustling Murang’a Road to the relatively calm Kipande Road. Unlike some modern matatus, this one did not play any music, a welcome relief to most of the adult commuters in the vehicle. Music, when played, often was loud and strong, some vehicles, or mobile discotheques as they were known, boasting of ear-splitting, body jarring 5000W speakers, the latest DVD and disco lights in and out of the vehicle. These are the ones that attracted the youth and some pot-bellied men suffering from mid-life crisis.
Inside the matatu were posters of local and international celebrities. Musicians, footballers, athletes, politicians basketball adorned the sides of the vehicle. A few witty phrases had also made their way into the matatu. My favourite ones: ‘Why is there so much month left at the end of the money?’ and ‘Take Me Drunk, I am Home’
“Time to pay,” the tout announced curtly.
“It’s too early to start paying and we are not even halfway through the journey,” complained one of the passengers as he reached into his pocket to get the fare. Typical Nairobians, more bark less bite.
“Just pay up,” the tout hissed as he started collecting the fare from the nearest passenger. “End month and no one is carrying coins,” he continued his monologue. I was one of those who had ‘big’ money for a trip of Ksh.20.
To describe what we were driving on as a road would be a great injustice. Terraces, for lack of a worse word, would suffice. As a friend of mine once said, the roads were unvehicleworthy. A common joke was that the only people who drove straight on Kenyan roads were drunks.
No passenger alighted until the roundabout at the National Museum of Kenya right at the end of the heavily pot holed Kipande Road. There was no bus stop at this junction but with such matatus, bus stops existed where the tout or driver decided them to be, and this was often where to pick passengers. The driver duly pulled over the sidewalk as one of the ‘passengers’ asked to alight. The man who was seated next to the driver in the front cabin, suddenly whipped out a gun, hit the driver on the head and ordered him to interchange positions with him. Almost simultaneously a second man behind him stood up brandishing a gun, his back to the driver.
This was too fast for all of us and the full impact only registered when the person sitting next to me rapidly announced, “Ngui ici (You dogs!) Today you will know who we are!”
We had just been hijacked! Finally all those horror stories that I had been reading in the papers, hearing on radio or from friends had become a reality. I studied The Captain. He had bloodshot eyes and his face bore ugly scars which he must have collected during such raids. Maybe scar collecting was his hobby. He seemed intoxicated and edgy, his eyes darting from one end to another.
To be continued next week……