When I was working from home, there’s one thing I missed, and one thing I looked forward to. About once a month, I’d have to go into town to pay my Zuku bill. The hour or so that I spent in a Number 15 gave me enough material to write for a week. So I’m glad I get to use matatus now. I ride two to work every day, and two more on my way home. It’s positively muse! Loud, ricketty, sometimes annoying muse, but still, muse!

I generally have three options of mats. I take a 15 to and from town, and to work, I take a 30 or a 23. Heading back into town, I’ll sometimes take those blue shuttles or a yellow Star thingie. At least I think that’s what they’re called. I sometimes wonder why I don’t take one in the morning. I guess I’ll find out one of these days.

My story started four nights ago. It was a Friday night, or maybe a Thursday, I’m not too sure. I got to Afya Centre and there were no mats, so I went to Bus Station. I don’t really mind getting mats from there. They’re old and ricketty, and they often fall  apart, but I’ve never been a yo-yo kind of girl, and the last mat I entered by name was Street Legal. That was a loooooong time ago.

Anyway, it turns out there was an operation of some kind, or a jam, or something, but for some reason there was a shortage of mats. The mathrees were charging 80 bob, which is expected for the Afya Centre matatus, but is blasphemous for Bus Station transport. The highest prices go here is 60 bob. Still, people got in and the mat left. Next, a yo-yo mat showed up charging … 100.

I was pretty pissed off, but I figured this is Lang’ata crowd, it’s late, they’ll pay. They always do, that’s why mats hike their fares. I mean, try pulling that stunt on Namba 8 and you’ll probably get lynched! Anyway, the guy comes and yells ‘Lang’ata Mia Moja’ and … *crickets* Nobody rushing for the mat, nobody whining, nobody protesting, just … *crickets*

I expected the usual scuffle to break out where some old man would start causing about the rising cost of living, or some woman would accuse the makanga of being cruel and heartless. Instead everybody just stared at him silently, and after a few moments, people resumed their conversations, totally ignoring him.

After maybe ten minutes of yelling into nothingness, the makanga whispered with the driver and lowered the price to 70 bob ‘watu wa estate’. What that means is the matatu would stop ten minutes from the last stage. But I didn’t mind. I spend 60 bobo every night, so 10 bob extra was better than 30 bob extra. And in the end, the mat got to the last stage – or so I heard.

I’ve never seen anything like that happen, and for some reason, I felt really, really proud to be among a crowd that stood up to a makanga. And we did it without yelling at anyone, weka-ing a tairi – or even saying a single word. Very cool. I saw it happen a few more times at Afya Centre, where the makanga would yell ‘Sabini’ and some woman would yell, ‘Hiyo sabini unafikiri tunaokota?’ Apparently, after 8.00 p.m., all Afya Centre mats should charge 50 bob. Hmm. Learn something new every day.

On a completely unrelated note, there’s a boy in my office who smells absolutely heavenly! Every time he has to brief me on something, I have to concentrate really, really hard to understand what he’s saying, and it’s hard to keep my mind focused. He walks by my desk and it’s five seconds before I remember what I was doing. I have no idea what that scent is called, but every time I’m near him, I sing silent praises to the God of Male Cologne. Sigh.

Back to the point. My next matatu story is more amusing than anything else. We got onto the matatu and it took off without its makanga. We alerted the driver, but he said the tout has been arrested, so we’d just have to do without one. He had an akorino turban on his head, and I was really curious to see how this would play out, especially since the passenger in makanga’s seat didn’t look like he planned on counting any money.

When we got to Museum Hill used-to-be-a-roundabout, the driver calmly parked the car, got out, came round to our side, collected his money, then went back and drove off. For some reason, I found the whole episode really funny and unusual. Not so, however, because it was repeated severally over the next few days, though the other drivers weren’t nearly as efficient as the turban man. One guy was so flustered that I’m sure some people left without paying, though I was amused to see the guys sneak away while the girls stood around and waited to pay. It made me smile that they chose to stick around and be honest when they didn’t have to.

On another side note, every time I get into a mat at night, I shake a little. The other day I got into one and after a few seconds, I noticed there were no other girls inside. It was a very worrying ride. If a guy gets into a mat and all the passengers are girls, he’ll have nothing but smiles and … other things. Yet for a girl, getting pointed stares from the guy sitting next to you at night is cause for concern. On one ride, every one in the matatu was a girl except the driver. It made me sad that if the roles had been reversed, the girl would probably be scared out of her skin. I know every time I get in a mat and find no women, I think long and hard about getting off and waiting for the next one. So much for gender equality

Lighter matatu stories. In another makanga-less mathree, an oldish farm lady ended up on the makanga’s seat. She had a pale matronly dress and a white headscarf, and I think she had as much fun doing the job as I had watching her do it. It’s things like this that make my days that much brighter, and each time I see one, I thank George for little mercies.

Sometimes, matatus make my day in other ways. Like when a driver zooms from 0 to 60 with the precision of  a rally driver and makes the transition so smooth that you barely feel it. Or when a flying mathree comes to a halt using some killer squeak-free brakes. I love that. I like it when the music in the mathree plays to my taste, and I enjoy the early morning rides because every day between 7 and 8 a.m., before Maina and King’ang’i start the nonsense, they’re actually quite funny.

A mathree can make my day and ruin someone else’s. In the mornings, we usually pay 70 bob to town. But once in a while, you’ll get lucky and pay 50 bob. The downside to that is people pay ’50 bob stage yote’ so that even people who get on at Dam, Wilson, or Nyayo pay the same price. Roles reverse in the evening and you end up paying 70 or 80 from Nyayo to Lang’ata. It’s enough to make you want to move to Kangemi, though they have to pay 50 bob in rush hour as well.

Most makangas are mean and heartless. I’ve been abused by more than one simply because I ignored their catcalls or wouldn’t get into the mat. But sometimes, they surprise you. One stage tout called me lots of sexist names, and I was about to get offended when the makanga jumped to my rescue. He was gentlemanly and polite, apologized for the stage tout’s behaviour, and when I got off at my stage, he even wished me a nice day, in those exact words. Bless his angel heart, wherever he is.

I’m a bit conflicted about driving my own car right now. I’d love to attend plays at Mavuno Dome without having to leech on a  ride, and I’d love to drive my baby to Panari for an evening of skating. But I haven’t been in a car since I cried my way into getting a drivers license, and all my dream cars have been taken away. According to the experts, a Beetle will give me nightmares in maintenance, a Jeep only scores 9 out of 20 on Top Gear, Defenders are just plain ugly, and an X6 can’t make it up a hill. I’m now wondering what pretty red car I can get that won’t be a total disaster; never mind that I can’t afford it yet, and that any car I pick is purely for visualization purposes. But however things turn out, I hope I never get too rich, comfortable, or stuck up to ride in a mathree.

126 thoughts on “A tale of mob matatus

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