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Matatu mess must come to an end

By | March 31st 2010

By Andrew Kipkemboi

I cringed as the matatu with 15 or so souls hurtled downhill with the hazards on and the horn honking. Loud music compounded the chaos. Apparently, to beat the monumental gridlock on a Saturday morning, this modern day kamikaze ‘pilot’ was driving in the wrong lane at high speed.

When a woman passenger alerted him to his unbecoming behaviour, he gave her a stern look. She remained quiet. Some of us joined her in silence. Others were engaged in animated chats as if there was nothing amiss.

At the traffic lights down the road, the bellicose and suicidal matatu driver just winked at the policeman who was talking on his walkie-talkie and drove on. Most of us had more to think about than to tell the policeman about a wayward driver.

When the frantic drive came to an end, I shuddered to think what could have happened had anything gone wrong. I thought of the damage and the injury that these reckless, cud-chewing, suicidal youth do to many innocent passengers everyday. And I thought of the unconscious complicity in the death and destruction that the matatu culture brings on us.

Failure to keep a tight rein on matatus has ensured that Kenya holds the dubious distinction of being among the countries with high road fatalities. Kenya beats other countries that have got more cars on the road than it has. And the chief cause of the accidents is the deeply ingrained matatu culture. Prima facie, the matatus have cases that in a man-eat-man-society, courtesy and decency suffer.

Our obsession with the matatu goes beyond its functional and utilitarian aspects. Largely for worse, sometimes for better, our world has been defined by the matatu sub-culture.

The cause and the pretext for the madness on the road is not because the Government has been slow in reacting as the thuggery that defines the industry took root but the refusal by everyone to take matters into their own hands.

Slow to a fault

If you rode in 77 Chepkong’a, there was no way you would forget the experience. "It is like riding in a jet," some of his customers on the Kabarnet-Nakuru road would say.

To start, it was spotlessly clean and the white paint gleamed in the sun.

Chepkonga’s vehicle (he owned it) received personal attention and everyone at the stage was in thrall to him. With his Afro-hairstyle, he always wiped his car. The trips were slow to a fault. Not that the Mitsubishi van was driven slowly. No, it was because the owner was a stickler to traffic rules. He drove his car at 80 kilometres per hour, as the red and black sticker on the back of his car dictates.

At the Kabarnet stage, when it was his turn to pick up passengers, he greeted them gently and showed them to their seats. He would even buy everyone seated in his 20-seater van a bottle of soda.

A civil man, he never jumped the queue, pushed nor badgered anyone into his car. He was a gentleman.

And when you set off for the 157-km ride, you were not irritated by the foul smell of oil leak that was common in other matatus. Neither did the clank of rusty metal knock annoyingly against each other. Careful despite his age, (he was in his 50s or thereabout) Chepkong’a would deliver us safely.

No one slept in his car, it was against the law and the volume of the car radio was kept to the minimum. Because, he never carried more or less, his car always remained new. To be on the right side of the law was perfunctory. In short, he was compliant even before former Transport Minister John Michuki’s rules came into force.

Whenever we were stopped at police checks, even the predatory policeman knew that Chepkong’a was beyond reproach.

Always, we arrived in Nakuru not looking dishevelled or roughed up. It was always a pleasure to ride in his matatu.

I have not seen Chepkong’a in years. May be competition pushed him out of business as the game quickly turned to survival for the fittest. His is a tale of nostalgia. Perhaps he retired. But for whatever, he was a man who made his passengers feel the value for their money.

Matatus are reputed for discourtesy, brusqueness and intolerance.

Bad leadership

In fact, the suffering at the hands of today’s unabashed matatu drivers is a microcosm of the suffering the benighted masses suffer in their lives and the impunity perpetuated by the political class.

Many find it hard to raise a finger when they are openly mistreated or misled by political leaders. It is just comfortable to sit and do nothing.

It is this refusal to take initiative and be masters of our destiny that exposes us to bad leadership because to get someone like Chepkong’a, would probably be when donkeys grow horns. Or have you got an example like him? Tell me.

The writer is The Standard’s Foreign News Editor.

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