Traffic policeman controlling vehicles in Nairobi streets july 1965 [Photo: Courtesy]

Many Kenyans used public means on their way to bonding with blood relations in shags in December. Others took matatus or used private means.

But did you know that there were no buses in Kenya before 1934, when Joseph Mortimer was Mayor of Nairobi?

That was the year a general election was held in the Kenya Colony with odieros forming the majority of registered voters, followed by muhindis and Arabs. Africans were not politically represented until 10 years later.

Anyway, 1934 was the year of the first public buses in Kenya: the Overseas Trading Company (OTC) of England shipped in 13 buses on 12 routes in Nairobi, where passengers spotted lions roaming by the roadside, like today’s dogs, goats, donkeys, cows, the stray cat and not a few monkeys in Rongai.

OTC was what Kenyans snidely translated to ‘Onyango Twende Choo’ and those 12 routes formed the basis of the city’s transport routes still in use today.

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 These routes expanded as the city grew to include inter-urban routes serving the CBD with wathii coming from surrounding estates like Eastleigh, Highridge and Parklands.

But it wasn’t until independence in 1963 that intra-urban routes of estate-to-estate to city centre were introduced in line with people having freedom to travel and thus, sample matunda ya uhuru.

Routes 28 (to Kariobangi and Huruma), 32 (Dandora), 41 and 42 (Dandora, Huruma and Kawangware) were launched as ‘classic routes’ created in 1966.

Peri-urban routes like 100 (Kiambu), 102 (Dagoretti-Kikuyu), 108 and 111 (Ngong) came in 1984-1985; while the Express route to upcountry was bus route 200, created by Kenya Bus Service (KBS) in 1995.

Subsequent matatu routes have followed these old OTC (which became the basis of the kbs) routes to date.

By independence, Kenya had 2,000km of tarmac road for 100,000 motis, compared to over 8,000km of lami now being used by over 1.4 million cars by 2013, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Did you know there were other bus companies such as Tom Mboya Bus Company founded by politician Tom Mboya in 1965 and the largest of its kind in Western Kenya?

While public road transport has come a long way since OTC came calling before it went under, there are several people who influenced public transport in Kenya: Mzee Jomo Kenyatta allowed matatus to compete with buses in 1973, meaning there were no ‘mats’ before then.

Jomo wanted to encourage indigenous entrepreneurship and create employment, which he did, considering we have over 250,000 public service vehicles in Kenya, but the downside was such that successive governments since Jomo Kenyatta were unable to control and regulate the chaotic matatu industry.   

Retired President Moi brought in the countrywide Nyayo Bus Service in 1986 to provide affordable public transport. But this directly hit KBS which unlike Nyayo Bus, was not subsidised by the State, leading to a near-collapse of the company.

Nyayo Bus collapsed in 1995 and the dominance of unregulated and untaxed matatus, marked the end of organised urban transport in Kenya.

That went on for nine years to 2004 when the late John Michuki was Transport minister. He introduced the “Michuki Rules” requiring installation of speed governors, passenger seat belts,   uniforms for touts and matatu drivers, besides certificates of good conduct. Standing passengers were banned and all matatus grouped into Saccos with defined routes.

Did you also know that there were no traffic lights in Nairobi, but cops standing on makeshift rostrums controlled vehicles in the city?

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 The pictures above show cops atop ‘control towers’ shaded by a white parasol and bearing the Kenya Police coat of arms and which had been newly introduced in July 1965.

Over 50 years later, Kenyans still depend on police to control traffic and organise them on roads!

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