Dispatch 10: Kenya’s mass transit for the common manby kenya on May. 10, 2010, under Life
By Lucas Renteria
America was literally built around the automobile, a vehicle which can take an individual when and where he or she wants to go. Owning a vehicle is as common as owning a third pair of shoes. In Kenya, however, there are many people, especially in the rural areas, who do not own cars. Cars are very expensive in general, and the rough roads make maintenance a routine and costly expense. Added to that, gas is at $5.00 a gallon, the equivalent of 350/=, which for average farmers is more than they earn in a day. For those who don’t have cars, there are matatus, Kenya’s wonderful answer to mass transit for the common man.
Matatus are often retired safari vehicles which seat up to fourteen people, but this is often exceeded to increase profit. The more trips a matatu driver can make during the day along his route, the more he can earn. Not surprisingly, the vans race to and fro, honking their horns in an annoying fashion to alert those at the matatu “stages” that a ride is on the way. When I was here with St. Gregory there was no need to use a matatu, but this trip I am on my own, so I find myself using matatus as my main mode of transportation.
Here is the way it works. In every town there are places were Matatus come, fill up with passengers, and then rush off to their next destination. Some places have actual booths where you buy a ticket, hop in, and wait; these are found in the larger cities. With the others, you only have to walk up and state the place you would like to travel. And even if you are not near a station, do not worry: if you see one of these large vans coming your way, all you have to do is flag it down and it will pull over for you. One thing that is very important to note though: do not worry about the amount of people that are already in the Matatu—it is of no concern. These cars have fourteen seats in total; however, they are infamous for fitting many, many, many more people than that. In fact, I have been in one with twenty-six people; it was quite the journey. You get so close that these people you are sitting next to become more like quick intimate friends than strangers. I was told that before this year, people would cling to the tops or even cling to the backs of these vans as they roughed along the unpaved roads without any regard or even knowledge of the idea of “speed limit.”
The whole enterprise is really beautiful, impressive to watch, and almost like an exact science. The goal of the Matatu is to get as many people as possible to a specific location as fast as possible. The driver is this crazy not-a-care-in-the-world guy whose sole task is to get that car to its destination as fast as possible, helped along by his assistant, what I call “the herder.” The Herder does whatever he can to see who wants a ride. He will almost fall out of the window while waving at those walking by and waiting for a wave in response. Once the driver sees a wave and the Herder confirms that it is someone going their way, the driver pulls over and the people hop on and squeeze in. Then, with a tap on the van from the Herder, the driver pulls away. The Herder usually jumps in as the car is driving away and ever so smoothly, slams the sliding door behind him. The Herder is also in charge of collecting money from those who are picked up on the side of the road. Now, if you want to get off at a destination that is along the way, do not alert the driver! He needs to focus on speed and not crashing! All you need to do is tap the Herder and let him know. Upon arriving close to the spot you need to get off, the Herder will flick or hit the top of the roof and the driver will pull over and let you off, then quickly start up again.
In these last couple of years the regulations on Matatus have begun to be enforced, and random police checks are set up along certain routes. But the Matatus drivers have figured out how to get around this. If they have more than the legal amount of people in them, they know where the police checks are, and they drop off the extra people right before they come to the checks. Then they continue on.
It is great being the “Mzungo” (foreigner) in the Matatu; I enjoy seeing who will end up sitting next to me and what their reactions will be: a scowl, glare, or a bright smile. As we all crowd up together, getting so close, I know what they’re thinking, “what in the world is this Mzungo doing?”\