Adventures in Matatus

by Kasha Patel

Public transportation in Kenya is nothing like America. The public transportation consists of minivans called matatus. The matatus are supposed to hold about 14 or so passengers, but you will hardly ever find one that is only carrying 14 people. I’ve been in matatus that have held 24 people and one hen (yes, there was a bird sitting at my feet). There aren’t even seats for everyone so some people must hang onto the matatu from the outside. There are usually one or two matatu conductors who find passengers and collect the money. The vans are also not well maintained at all. I’ve been in matatus with missing seat cushioning, broken air conditioners, broken speedometers, distinct fish smells, and faulty brakes. Matatus are actually pretty dangerous to travel in and accidents usually result in deaths. I am very fortunate to have made it with no serious problems. Instead, I just came back with some interesting stories…

The door isn’t that important, right?

In one of my very first matatu experiences, I was cramped in the back of the van with a bunch of people and was clutching on my backpack. The matatu was carrying so many people that the sliding backdoor was open as we were driving down the road to allow people to hang on to the outside of the van. I can’t even describe to you the poor condition of this matatu. There was no cushioning left in the seats. Most of the windows were missing glass and were covered by plastic wrap instead. I have no idea how the vehicle was still working, although the sounds from the engine made it sound like it was on its last limb. As we were driving down the road, we heard a loud noise and felt the car jerk a little. I didn’t think much of it, but I looked out the back window and saw a huge piece of metal on the road. The driver reversed the car and I finally saw that the big piece of metal was the sliding backdoor of our matatu. Judging from the Kenyan passengers’ reactions, I could tell this was not a normal occurrence. The driver and conductors of the matatu got out and spent several minutes trying to reattach the door to the van. They tried to screw the door back on its tracks but the door wouldn’t stay up. Finally, they got a huge rope and literally tied the door to the van. They drove us for a little while longer until we reached a town and then they transferred us all to another matatu.

Picture of the conductor standing in front of the matatu with the sliding backdoor tied to the vehicle

Um…where’s the driver?

This is one of my favorite matatu stories. My Kenyan friend Faith and I are on our way back from Kisumu to Bondo. I was actually in the nicest matatu that I’ve ever been in. The vehicle looked very new or recently refurbished. The seats had new leather, all the doors were working, and all the windows had glass. Perhaps because of its new condition, the conductors managed to fit eight people in the backseat instead of four. I was one of the eight people. It was a particularly hot day and I was excited to go back to the hotel after a long day of reporting. We are driving along the road when the driver suddenly stops in the middle of the road, gets out of the car, and hails a motorbike (called a pike pike) to take him in the opposite direction. Everyone in the car is very confused, which told me that this was not normal. The conductor of the matatu also got out of the car and was standing about 10 meters or so away from the car. He makes no effort to tell us what is going on. Finally, one of the passengers gets in the driver’s seat and starts driving the matatu a few meters. The conductor comes running after us and finally explains the situation. Apparently, the driver left something on top of gas pump at the gas station and had to go back and get it. We were about 20 minutes away from the gas station and could do nothing but wait for him to come back. We stand outside the vehicle waiting for the driver to come back. After about forty-five minutes, the driver comes back riding on the back of a motorbike. We clap and have a laugh, but I think we’re all just relieved to see our driver again. Before we continue on our trip, I see the driver go to the gas cap on the side of the car and pull out an ordinary padlock to lock the gas cap. Apparently, the driver paid a motorbike to take him all the way back to the gas station to pick up that small lock. I don’t know the driver’s economic situation, but I can’t imagine that was an economical decision. Despite the huge inconvenience, none of the Kenyans were noticeable upset but seemed to rather laugh it off. The entire situation was so ridiculous that all you could do was laugh.

The drunk woman

The people in the matatus were generally well behaved. Most people were polite and kept to themselves. There were a couple of stubborn people who refused to pay the full fare but they were subsequently kicked out of the vehicle. All in all, I didn’t really see many drunk people on the matatus. However, on one night going from Kisumu to Bondo (for some reason a lot of my matatu stories occur from Kisumu to Bondo), I had the pleasure of riding in a matatu in the company of an entertaining middle-aged woman. She was sitting in the row ahead of me, but she was very loud and clearly drunk. My Kenyan friend Faith told me that it is very uncommon to see a woman publicly drunk and it is highly frowned upon. The men sitting next to the drunk lady commented on her drunkenness to her and asked her if she knows where she’s going. She was very sassy and replied that she knows exactly where she is and knows the area better than any of them. The men were trying to tell her that she should leave the matatu. She resisted and didn’t understand why. Finally, one of the male passengers who has never met this lady before said he is in love with her. He said she has taken his heart and said something about marriage. She replied that he can’t love her because he knows nothing about her. The man kept professing his love to her and she ridiculed him for the hastiness of his decision. The exchange was very harmless and humorous. Finally, the lady got out of the car saying she was at her destination, although she got off in the middle of road miles away from any town…either way, everyone in the matatu had a good laugh from the lady.