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Can't tame, can't ride them? Bin them

By | November 10th 2010

One of Kenya's emblems of endurance, stubbornness, innovativeness and anomie is finally destined for extinction.

For as long as anyone can remember, the matatu has been there. It revolutionised public transport, shuffling millions of Kenyan doctors, nurses, lawyers, public administrators, journalists and all from home to work and town to rural centres everyday.

Its reliability and robustness was never in doubt. But as with anything popular, with time, it became a nuisance. The matatu even got into Kenya’s idiom.

It throbbed with non-conformity, outright deviance at times bordering on the suicidal. The dogged determination of the matatu to cut corners and circumvent the law soon became its undoing. It often bullied the society to accept chaos it unleashed as part of the game.

In truth, many never thought that the bond between the matatu and the Kenyan public could ever be broken, the dreadful ride and the daily brush with death notwithstanding. You literally risk life and limb when you board one.

Though it was an outcast society, it was taken as part of the lunatic fringe and is grudgingly accepted by a wider society.

At one point, many feared that competition would push it out of the road, but alas, it endured the entry of the comfier and less noisier mini buses.

The popularity of the matatu can never be overemphasised. It is relatively cheaper and faster. It is efficient, indiscriminate and on the spot. But customer service was never in the bargain.

Even in times of turmoil and economic hardship, the matatu never stopped to rave.

But then the iconic matatu has long become the cesspit of bad behaviour, corruption and impunity. One would say that the matatu refused to change with the times.

ignore anarchy

Matatu crew often pushed the envelop of decency and courtesy and the rigours of getting into and alighting from a matatu are those one wishes to forget fast.

They turned African tradition upside down, showing no respect for the elderly and the young. Nor did they show remorse for the headache they caused everyone in their the-end-justifies-the-means mission.

None of them quite appreciated or if they did, they chose to ignore the anarchy they caused everyone else as they tried to go about with their business. In their culture of anything goes, some of them perhaps took it upon themselves to unleash mayhem and misery on other road users.

So, just as it is hard for the owners of the matatus to acknowledge that the writing has been on the wall for some time now, in the end it will all be about choice, taste and class because changes introduced by the Transport Ministry envisage a public transport system where the customer is king.

The rigours of getting into a matatu vis-‡-vis the pleasant experience of boarding a shuttle where there is room for civilised chat and sufficient legroom and comfy seats shall determine their survival.

Come to think of it, you can read a newspaper or a novel and, of course, have those satisfying quiet moments in a shuttle.

It is also hoped that the changes will make public transport more efficient and reliable and at the same time reduce air and noise pollution while easeing congestion on the roads.

But to blame it all on the matatu is to be unfair. The public’s collective greed and the appalling lack of a sense of time fed and encouraged the culture of the matatu. Passengers late for appointments always egged them on to flout the Highway Code if just to arrive at their destination on time.

withering fury

Therefore, the reliability and convenience of the matatu was always at the expense of somebody else. Always the hapless motorist and the pedestrian. Anyone who dared raise a finger risked the gush of vitriol and withering fury from the often under the influence driver and tout.

The passengers just sat there numb and mute in bewildering helplessness.

Actually, the death of the matatu can be attributed to the reckless belligerence of the drivers and the maladroit, conniving policemen who looked the other way as they flouted the rules.

Yet if people thought the matatu was so bad, public transport has been jolted by the entry of the motorcycle taxis that exhibit the same madness, if not of worse, than the matatus. Perhaps that is where the next battle will be.

The writer is Foreign News Editor at The Standard.

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