“Do you wish to relieve yourself too?” the man sitting beside me politely asked.
We had not even been introduced.
This did, to be fair, explain why the express matatu had pulled over at the side of the road, and all the passengers and the driver were getting out and wandering into the bush. As I declined my travelling companion’s solicitous suggestion, I realised two things. Firstly, that I was the only woman on the matatu (and the only person not getting off) – I’d been catching up on the Daily Nation in the back seat and hadn’t been paying much attention to my fellow travellers. And secondly, that several of the men had not actually gone all that far into the bush to ‘relieve’ themselves. I hurriedly averted my eyes back to the reportings of political shenanigans in the newspaper until the matatu was back on the road.
All the while, the engine continued to run.
Matatus are the life-blood of the Kenyan roads. Often quite literally given the speeding and crazy overtaking on the highway. The newspapers are full of horrendous stories of carnage. The ‘see-who-blinks-first’ school of driving seems to be practiced by most of the drivers, sadly sometimes not very successfully.
Matatus are small, white (usually) Nissan minivans, a yellow band showing the destinations around its girth. Often there are religious slogans or imagery plastered both in and out, particularly on the back window. Or images of and quotes from Bob Marley or Tupac. They are built and registered to take 15 people, including the driver (wearing shades of blue) and the conductor (in maroon). The more posh vehicles (like the one I am travelling in between Nakuru and Nairobi) have 11 seats, including the one for the driver.
I am told that they get their name from the Kiswahili word ‘tatu’ which means 3 – there are 3 seats in each row (including the front with the driver). Personally, I think the words sounds more like the word ‘matata’ which means ‘problems’ – of which there can be many.
Matatus leave from a ‘stage’ in town – a matatu station – with each company running competing, often identical routes. If you are in Nairobi, and you want a matatu for Nakuru, you go to Odeon. If you want to go to Nanyuki, you go to the area called Tearoom. Every town has its different ‘stages’ for different routes, in different parts of town.
At the starting stage, there is a wooden or metal board perched on the top of the vehicle, listing the destination with the main points of call listed below. When I am travelling to Kampi Ya Moto, I take the matatu for Ravine, which passes though Mercy Njeri and Kabarak. You can hear when the matatu is ready to leave by the juddering sound of the board being dragged from the roof and placed on the next vehicle in line.
The great thing – and the awful thing at times – is that there are no timetables. You simply climb aboard and wait until all the seats are filled. This might take 5 minutes. This might take a couple of hours, depending on the route, the company you use, the time of day. You need to plan ahead, particularly if you have a long journey or if you need to get somewhere fast. But at least the matatu can never actually be late!
The 15-seater matatus stop to pick up and drop off people along the route. (The 11-seater ones don’t tend to – they are the express service – apart from if everyone needs a comfort break!) Once out of sight of the main stage – or the next police check – they pick up more customers. So what if they are only registered to carry 13 passengers? Just squeeze along a bit, won’t you? Already 5 people in your row? Don’t worry, here’s a small plank of wood we’ll put across the 6″ gap which amounts to an aisle, and you can perch on that. No plank of wood? Well, one cheek on each seat, and good, steady muscle control is all that is needed. And of course, children’s don’t count. My record on a matatu was 23 adults, and over 17 visible primary school children, sitting on knees, and stacked like kindling in all available gaps. There may have been more, but again I was sitting in the back row, and my vision was obscured by a wall of bodies.
To hail a matatu in transit, you need to stand at the side of the road – anywhere at the side of any road – and look interested. Or wave your arm up and down if you’re desperate. The ones which don’t stop (the conductors have elaborate hand and arm signals to let you know) are already bursting to capacity – or else there is a known police check up ahead. the ones which dos top may squeeze you in uncomfortably. Personal space is not an option. Or they may be just about empty, in which case they will amble along, driver and conductor leaning out on the lookout for any potential passenger. This may involve them stopping for several minutes which the conductor waves to people in the far distance to ascertain their immanent travel plans. Or doing an emergency stop. You may be driven up a random dirt track, or a small street because someone up there perhaps looked interested, as if they might want to be travelling somewhere in the next hour or so.
Reversing wildly is also common, and it seems to be be the pleasure of the passengers to wait until the potential fare has stopped their conversation with their friend and finally alights.
To stop a matatu when you are already travelling also has its own code and etiquette. If you are sitting close enough to the conductor, you can simply point or say the name of where you wish to alight. The conductor either chaps the metal roof trim with a coin, or flicks the fabric roof with his finger to signal the driver to stop. I genuinely have no idea how the driver picks up on this faint sound. If the worst comes to the worst, and you are trapped at the back behind 20-odd people, you tap someone in front of you on the shoulder, point to the conductor, and say the name of your destination, and they relay your message.
On that journey to Nairobi, my fellow-traveller evidently thought he’d broken the ice with his question, and on his return to the vehicle, we chatted all the way to the outskirts of Nairobi where he got out. He lived near Nakuru National park, he said, and I should come and visit him and his family. We swapped numbers and he gave me a cheery goodbye.
Two minutes later, my phone rang. I didn’t recognise the number. The young man – maybe all of 19 – who had been sitting on the other side of the man, leaned across and grinned. “I copied your number to my phone,” he said.
I gave him my best glare, and told him that he had better remove it as I hadn’t intended it for him. Unabashed he proceeded to try to impress me even more.
He was, he said, a hunter.
Oh? And what did he hunt?
Squirrels, was his reply.
I tried not to laugh. Really, I did.
And what did he hunt these fearsome beasts with, I wondered.
A bow and arrow apparently.
(Unfortunately, he hasn’t been the only guy to try to impress me with tales of hunting. Someone else was under the misapprehension that telling me of the polar bears he’d shot would give him a chance.)
As I alighted from the matatu, I told him that he should stop speaking to strange women on public transport. For their sake. And he should find another hobby. He grinned at me, and rang my phone again, waving at me out of the back window as the matatu pulled away.
I have to say that I never heard from either of these men again. And quite frankly, I think that they both realised that they would never be able to quite top their conversation openers.