Monday, September 1, 2008

The Nairobi Matatu

I'd like to tell you about the Nairobi motoring phenomenon called the Matatu, although in actual fact it would appear to be an Africa-wide phenomenon under a wide variety of names and variations.
The Matatu is a sixteen-seater minibus that serves as public transport and private taxi for the population of Nairobi. It derives its name from the Swahili word for three, - tatu, because the original fare, seemingly, was three Kenyan shillings. And it would be easy to imagine that the whole traffic system of Nairobi had been built with the Matatu in mind. Pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, even traffic cops, - everyone it seems, must give way to the Matatu.
The Matatu is a whole universe unto itself, - an ecosystem, a solar system, a judicial system, and a political system all rolled into one. Many carry slogans, religious and otherwise, emblazoned on the back windows, such as: 'Snoop Dog', 'Chick Magnet', 'God Really Cares'; and my particular favourite: 'Jesus Wept', which seems very appropriate.
On each Matatu you have a driver and a ‘makanga’, or conductor. It’s the job of the makanga to gather as many passengers, by whatever means, to make the journey viable. You might be just taking a stroll along the road minding your own business, when up rolls a Matatu and you’re whisked onboard, just to make up the numbers for the trip to town (downtown Nairobi that is). Once on board, you simply cannot be sure if you’ll ever see family, friends or civilisation again. Fluorescent disco-lights flash to the beat of rap music pumping loudly inside, the suspension pumps wildly, while the engine pumps furiously, and if you’re lucky, the brakes will work if they’re pumped too.
From my home in South B, town is only short ride by Matatu, costing twenty Kenyan shillings, or twenty bob (about 20c in Euroland). During rush-hour the journey by car could take anything up to two hours, but with an experienced Matatu driver, even in the heaviest rush-hour traffic, you could easily make it in less than seven minutes. Bus (or Matatu) lanes in Nairobi can mean driving down the wrong side of the road; careering along footpaths while hooting unsuspecting pedestrians out of the way; or even driving the wrong way around a roundabout. Official routes are arbitrary, and you frequently find yourself being driven in the wrong direction, through slum dirt-roads or potholed industrial areas, in search of a shortcut past the traffic. They have the ability to squeeze a 2mtr wide minibus into a 1mtr wide gap between two oncoming vehicles, and all this at break-neck speed. In Nairobi, seatbelts are compulsory in all vehicles ............. but only when there’s a police checkpoint ahead, and people rarely bother otherwise; (if you hear a call to "put on your seatbelt", it usually only means there's a pick-pocket on board trying to distract passengers so he can relieve them of their possessions).
Passengers just sit, apparently calmly, reading their newspapers or chatting, while unfortunate blow-ins like myself, wince and cringe at every jerk or twist of the steering wheel.
What’s the point in panicking though? Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride like the locals, and gloat in the knowledge that there are thrill-seeking tourists all over the world paying high and exorbitant prices for adventure sports holidays and cheap kicks that would seem like a quiet Sunday afternoon picnic in the countryside, when compared to a ride in a Matatu.
Driving along a motorway too, is an adrenalin-rush with few equals in the world of extreme sports. With no apparent speed restrictions, a two-lane highway can suddenly become four or even five lanes in a matter of seconds, as huge four-wheel drive Land Cruisers, haulage lorries with dangerously swaying trailers, inter-city coaches with luggage, livestock and flailing canvas covers, piled sky-high on the roof, overtake, undertake, and simply blow you out of their way. While Matatus, stopping to pick up an extra passenger on the hard shoulder, casually cut out into the melee when the passenger is onboard, without reference to rear-view mirror, hooting horns, or prayer book.
Even ordinary motorists seem to take their lead from the Matatu driver. When you arrive at a junction, with or without a stop sign, the technique is to keep your head down and drive straight out, without making eye contact with the drivers coming from left or right. Somehow, it works very well, and it’s amazing how you can squeeze into a gap in the flowing traffic if you keep your cool and DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT!!! Likewise, if you come to a roundabout, it doesn’t really matter which lane you’re in or where you wish to exit the roundabout, just don’t attempt to stop to check what’s coming in from your right (as is normal in Ireland). Again, keep your head down, look ahead or to your left if you feel some pointless urge to judge where you’re heading, but don’t make eye contact under any circumstances with the traffic coming in from your right. Watch their front bumper, and barely get yours in front if you can. Take a deep breath, - it’s guaranteed to make your car at least six inches narrower, - which should be just enough to squeeze between the giant wheels of a huge earth-mover and an oncoming Matatu racing towards you at high speed. Hold your cool at all costs though. This is a game, and any hesitancy or flinching will only confuse the other players. They’re ‘aiming’ for where you won’t be in a nano-second’s time, so if you stall or lose your nerve, they’re sure to hit you. In other words, if you’re still in the spot you should have vacated one-thousandth of a second ago to let them through, then it’s your own fault and you’ll surely suffer the consequences, - if you get my drift. And remember, they’re unlikely to have brakes that work, - or insurance for that matter!
And the really amazing thing about it all is, that there appears to be no such thing as road-rage! If you happen to lose the dreaded Eye-Contact battle, then you’re the one who failed the test, and there’s no point shouting or waving your fist out the window. Be a man, or woman; learn from your mistakes and get on with it, seems to be the golden rule accepted by all.
Imagine a similar incident on the M50 / Naas Road roundabout! There’d be grown mature men, ranting and raving, and having blue fits and hairy-canaries all over the road with rage. Blood vessels would burst in a vile and disgusting spray of angst and fury. Hissy-Fit ‘lady’ drivers, bemoaning the demise of chivalry and gentlemanliness, because somebody swore at them for cutting across four lanes to the outside lane, - with their left-hand indicator still flashing wildly, would throw stomping tantrums at whoever cared or dared to listen. Tallaght hospital’s cardiac unit would go into overdrive to keep up with the new admissions, and sales of massive big four-wheel-drive off-road monsters would sky-rocket in anticipation of future challenges on the roundabout to hell.
But no! This is not the way of the peaceful Nairobi motorist. Perhaps it’s an inner-calm that holds them back; or maybe it’s some spiritual goodness and tranquillity that makes them forgive and forget. More likely though, it’s simply the common-sense knowledge that if you get out of your car to rant and rave, somebody might shoot at you, while somebody else hops in and makes off with your pride and joy, and even your loving wife and kids, leaving you standing sheepishly and terrified in the middle of the road, - not a good place to be at 8am in Nairobi, when all around is apparent havoc, chaos, anarchy and mayhem.
So next time some boy-racer cuts across you on the M50, going the wrong way down the motorway, while weaving in and out of the fast lane, just think of the gentle, kind, and calm Nairobi Matatu driver, and accept full responsibility for letting the *@?/*#***ing *#*@?*er get in front of you in the first place.
BE CALM, BE GRACIOUS, BE PATIENT, - BUT AT ALL COSTS, - BE FIRST !!!!Love to all from the Nairobi Farmer

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