Of the Matatus and Peculiar Passengers
The matatu industry may have generated a culture of its own. Before the late John Michuki stepped in and brought order, the industry was unregulated and renowned for reckless drivers, rude touts who hardly took showers for days on end and overpacked passengers squeezed in seats like sardines in a tin.
The adage that things changes on the outside and only remains the same on the inside holds true for this sector. Despite the stencilled passenger numbers on the vehicle’s body, which reads anything like, ‘mtu 14’ ‘vichwa 14’, ’14 skulls’ and so on in a creative fashion, the truth is, a fourteen seater carries eighteen passengers at most.
Though professionalism is witnessed across several matatu saccos, some are known to break laws with impunity. Touts rudeness is so ingrained that it is part of qualifications to this sector.
Travelling in these jalopies can at times be exhilarating. Not because of the touts rudeness, but the passenger themselves.
It is discomforting for a plus sized woman to be made to pay double fare, on account of her bodily endowment if her derrieres spills over to the other seat.
“Wewe mama kaa square hapo kuna nafasi ya wawili, (you woman, squueze yourself that seat has a space for two)," a foul mouthed, red-eyed conductor chewing Meru weeds would tell such a matronly lady while pushing a lean passenger to insert himself on a non-existent space. Worse is when one is squeezed between two plus sized mamas and has air literally driven out of lungs when clumped in a vice like human grip.
These matatus, especially the newer ones in the market like Hiaces, have windows that rarely open. Only two on either sides of passenger compartment do open, and to a narrow gap, making it inevitable for an air conditioning to be a must (if such a law is enacted). In case you are in such a sweltering matatu, it is very discomfiting when the passengers seating next to said windows refuses to open them, complaining of wind.
Those suffering from motion sicknesses and throwing up can easily slide a window and puke out in a moving vehicle if travelling in old matatu versions that had windows sliding both ways. It is worse with these Toyota Hiaces. With the ban on plastic bags, where it would have been easily for a passenger to throw up in, there is nothing provided for these category of travellers.
Some of the passengers, it appears are queer lot. It doesn’t help when the one you are sharing a seat with turns into an expert of sorts offering you all manners of unsolicited advice. Be it weather, politics, sports or inane stuff, the ‘expert’ is likely to keep you preoccupied during the entire trip.
When the conductor roars asking for fare, you will find a passenger or two who will rarely touch the money with bare hands. These are from some religious sects or cults, spotting a turban or a headscarf. The way they hold the money, say with a handkerchief or a piece of paper, and extend it to the conductor, would have one think the currency is a piece of plague.
Others will throw decorum to the wind when conversing on their handsets. Sample this conversation overheard between a male passenger and someone purportedly to be a school head, a landlord, a chama chairperson or someone he owed money.
“Si juzi nililipa pesa! Hiyo ingine ni ya nini unauliza? (I paid the other day! What's the extra money you're asking for?)” the passenger furiously barked.
After perhaps being put in picture over the pending arrears, the passenger went into an overdrive with his rants; “silipi na sitalipa! Unafikiri mimi ni ATM yenye miguu miwili? (Am not paying! You think I'm an ATM with two legs?)”
All the other passengers were rapt in attention, some smiling benignly while listening.
After more ranting, this irritated passenger knocked the roof of the matatu ordering the driver to stop. “Dereva, simamisha hii gari nitoke narudi tao! (Driver, stop here I'm alighting and heading back to town!)” he barked, as he switched his phone off, and disembarked in a fit, without asking for a percentage fare refund, having paid for a full trip in the first place.
If a passenger is in a stressful mood, the tout needs watch out. One found himself on the receiving end as a provoked female launched into a tirade of obscenities after feeling short-changed on fare. The tout, not to be outdone, launched into foul invectives, which at first sounded amusing before sucking in other passengers who tried to diffuse the situation.
“Utajua mimi si mamako aliyekuzaa! (You'll know I'm not your mother!)” the female passenger shouted.
“Unataka nini? Shuka utembee! (What do you want? Alight and walk!)” the tout responded.
At this point, the matatu became a Babel of noises, as other passengers joined in.
The driver did what could be done under the circumstances. He pulled by roadside, switched off the vehicle and got out.
“Gari haliendi hadi mtatue kelele zenu! (I'm not driving until you all stop your noises!),” he said. However, he was back in his seat in a jiffy, especially when some passengers, yours truly included, ordered for a fare refund in order to pick alternative transports, and we had to endure the kelele (noise) of the angry mama as she tongue-lashed the young conductor, till the point of her disembarking, that it was like a relief, seeing how the other passengers exchanged looks or let off guffaws of laughter they had suppressed.
When a passenger with kids sits next to you, be prepared for the inevitable. She can deposit one kid on your lap to ‘hold briefly’, but in essence to mind it, as she balances another kid and luggage on her lap. It doesn’t help matters if you are rushing someplace important and the kid ends up soiling your clothes.
What of the market women who boards with reed baskets, some smelling like a dumpsite owing to the kind of goods being carried, like fish, which attracts swarms of flies?
Alas! These Kenyan matatus!