Sunday, December 19, 2010
Kenya Calling – Mango in Matatu
Matatu is synonymous to Kenya as the lions. The country is unthinkable without either. If I had the power, I would put a lion inside a matatu as Kenya’s national emblem. Every guidebook worth its misguided notions recommend a visitor to stay as far as possible from one while all my well meaning friends, both original born Kenyans (surprisingly) and expatriates and those working in the country for a while, vociferously united in their anti-matatu campaign and tried their best to dissuade me (even to the point of making it scary) from ever riding into one. What more an excuse did I need to decree that come what may, hail or hurricane, a matatu ride has to be an integral and absolute part of my Kenya package!
Now most of you might be wondering what exactly am I referring to! Those who have been to Kenya would upturn their nose and declare – ha, we know it all, while those who haven’t might head for Google. But I would request you both to indulge me a bit and learn it from the latest fan and initiate into the matatu cult of Kenya.
Matatu is what keeps Kenya moving, not only forward but in every possible direction; there could be one going up too though I am yet to see one; while if there is one indeed going that way it won’t surprise me a bit. And if I am to believe the gossip-mongers then many a faithful Kenyans indeed take their last mortal ride en route to heaven on a matatu; in that way it does help you to move in the vertical plane as well.
Technically speaking, it is a medium sized mini-van; either Toyota or Nissan makes that seat 14 or 11 passengers plus a driver and a tout. They ply everywhere within the cities and then there are those that run inter-cities and in that manner you can perhaps reach every corner of the country barring only a few. The ones that connect the cities are called either a shuttle (14 seats) or an express (11 seats). Matatus are the cheapest and fastest mode of transport for Kenyans. Bad roads, road jams, road blocks, waving policemen, mob or riots, rain or sunshine; nothing comes in the way of a matatu and its destination since a matatu doesn’t run, it flies.
They stop everywhere, even the so called ‘non-stop’ ones and don’t be surprised if the tout asks you to perch your bottom on a big mama’s lap or worst still on his lap. Just be thankful that you found a seat in a jam-packed matatu and then join the rest of your fellow passengers in praising the lord. The intra-city ones have route numbers written on them and often they do multiple-routes in one single journey. So till a point it may display the number 108 (the matatu from my place to the city center) and then change it to 11. This sudden shift in identity is mysterious though it essentially doesn’t change the route and you would still reach your destination only if you know where it is. A matatu is a moving, jostling, vibrating and erupting discotheque as it blares music at top volume, entertaining even those who don’t wish to be entertained. Once inside a matatu you kind of lose your basic human rights of ‘choice’. You just ‘be’ and go with the flow.
Within Nairobi, all matatus converge to and diverge from few main places, like near fire station or railway station right in the heart of the bustling city. To go from one end of the city to another, you may have to change few matatus, but rarely more than two. The fare varies between 30 – 50 Ksh (1 Euro = 104 Ksh), irrespective of where you want to go. The tout opens and squeezes you inside while the driver floors the accelerator even as your bottom half is hanging out. It’s good for airing your posterior though not for a passerby whose hat or head might be knocked off by your jutting butt.
The touts are not really aggressive, no more than their Indian brothers, but highly persuasive and they don’t cheat like many would want you to believe. If you can make them understand where you wish to go then they would even guide you or drop you at the exact place and if they really like your hairdo then even plan your day for you; all for free with only few well meaning smiles. While compared to similar modes of transportation in India what makes matatus stand apart is that no one, absolutely no one in a matatu goes standing. Every one sits and has a seat to himself or herself. In India that’s an inconceivable luxury.
The best way to catch a matatu is to go to any road and just stand wherever you feel like, be it under a tree or beside a clump of shanty shops, and wave down a matatu as it comes roaring down the road like a bull on heat. The only thing you need to get right is on which side of the road you should stand to go your way. If the matatu has sitting space (even if it is on a lap) it will screech and the door will slide open in one fluid motion of synchronized rhythm with finesse strident enough to wake up even the prince of Addis Ababa. In you go, you might even be grabbed by your collar by the well-wishing tout, and you deposit your derrier in any seat you find vacant or something similar in shape and dimension. By that time the matatu has returned to its raging bullish form.
Initially the cacophonous music will deafen you but as you move to the groove and your body learns to handle the jerks and jumps, you would start relishing it like a long lost symphony from the times gone by. Everyone is swaying and so would you. After a while or a long while, the tout will gesture at you with a raised finger, which might be considered very crude and rude in some parts of the world; but here he is just being at his politest best. You insert your fingers into your pocket and depending on what coin or note you get, drop into the extended palm. Now here’s something that totally boggles me. The fare that the tout will accept from you will to a large extent depend on his mood, the angle of the sun, the kind of music, the roll of his eyes, and what he thinks of you. As a foreigner I could get away simply by looking adorably dumb and naïve. What exactly happens is that you might drop in a coin of 30 or 40 or a note of 50 Ksh in the guy’s palm and if you have overpaid then obviously he won’t mention that to you (since you are dumb and a foreigner) and quietly pocket the money but if you have underpaid him (since you are dumb and a foreigner) and the conditions are right then he won’t ask you for the extra money either. So each time I would simply drop the minimum matatu fare of 30 Ksh and look as dumb as possible even when I knew that the right fare was 50 and till date no one asked for the balance amount. If this doesn’t convince you of Kenyan hospitality to outsiders then what will? When you need to alight, simply rap your knuckles smartly and sharply on any piece of metal, rapid two short ones, and the matatu will halt at the place.
For inter-city matatus, you need to go to Accra Road near Nairobi Fire Station city centre and look for the signboard atop the roof of the matatus, where they declare the destinations and route they would be plying. For traveling anywhere in Kenya take only the matatus; they are the cheapest and fastest way to travel and you travel with the locals so you get to experience the country like the way it is.
Now during the initial days as I was being whisked away by my friends in their cars or I was paying exorbitant and extortion type taxi fares I would look lustily at the matatus passing me by and salivate at the prospect of riding inside of one. But my friends wouldn’t even hear of it. They opined that I would be drugged, robbed, my mobile would be snatched, my empty pockets would be picked, I would be duped, etc and literally taken for a ride.
But then all such theories only made my resolve stronger for a brush with matatu. So one day I stride out of my house and straight onto the road and jump like a sky-diver into the first matatu that comes my way. To hell with directions and decisions, for me the ride is the cake and the cream, no matter where it takes me. But I did take my precautions: all cash and card and mobile (in silent mode) inside my socks, only 100 Ksh in small changes in my shirt breast pocket. All my trouser pockets including the inside ones are absolutely empty. No watch, no fancy sunglasses, hair in complete disarray (it will be better if you go with few days of stubble); visibly dirty clothes and a big idiotic grin plastered from ear to ear. Act the fool and a lost poor foreigner in search of help and the touts and your fellow passengers, among of them some of the elitest pickpockets on the planet, would all come to your rescue.
The moment I stepped into my first matatu ride, I gained liberty and freedom of movement. I didn’t have to wait any longer for anyone, and no one had to reschedule their visitations, neither did I have to willingly submit to being robbed by the taxis. Now I know most of the routes and can avoid being delayed or duped and I am yet to be robbed or doped or taken for a ride. For me it is a jolly good ride and a ride that I intend to ride for all my rides wherever it is possible
The funny title has nothing to do with matatus actually, except that my hostess the superbly elegant and eloquent Maryjka, one day bid me to carry a mango on one of my long matatu trips and I decided to eat the ripe orange fruit in the matatu while speeding towards destined doom at F1 speed on a road that would put Cambodia to shame. I ate the fruit without dropping a single drop on my lap or on that of my neighbor and what happened thereafter is an altogether different story for another time. For now let’s all hail the matatu and clap our hands in appreciation that though these fast moving ugly boxes on wheel break the sound barrier so often they keep Kenya and Kenyans moving without killing so many as we are lead to believe. Believe me – for now I am not only a matatu expert but a champion for their cause.
Long live the matatus, may your tribe thrive and may more of us to you subscribe.
P.S. The accompanying picture is the true depiction of a matatu at its best. It has not been doctored, misrepresented or mishandled in any way. And believe me this matatu still has room for more.