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When Nairobi was clean and clean and public transport orderly

By Amos Kareithi | April 29th 2021
KBS Double Decker buses in Nairobi in the 1960s [Courtesy]

There was a time Nairobi was truly the Green City in the Sun.

Back then, the streets were clean, and bogus beggars from as far as Tanzania had not yet discovered that street families could be transformed into a thriving regional enterprise.

In the 1960s, double-decker buses plied major city routes and estates with the precision of a synchronised watch. When this photograph, which evokes nostalgic memories of an era long gone, was taken, the well-maintained buses were parked in an orderly manner, perhaps after doing their daily rounds.

Fast forward to 2021 and the matatu or bus that was driven off the assembly line three months ago now looks like a battle tank that has done a tour of duty in Somalia and the Sahel, fighting Isis and other insurgents who have left their scarred signatures on its body.

The matatu industry started as an illegal operation by motor vehicle owners who saw a need they exploited in 1973. And when the owners of the big buses complained, President Jomo Kenyatta told them to stop whining and instead sell their buses and buy matatus, so named because they were charging a uniform fare of 30 cents per trip.

And, as Winnie V Mitullah and Stephen Siro Onsate write in Formalising Matatu Industry in Kenya: Twists and Turns,  for a time, they started an illegal industry that was allowed to operate by Kenyatta without any form of licensing.

They would grow into an ogre, perceived by many as a law unto themselves giving rise to what is called matatu madness. Today, as the government struggles to tame the matatu industry, which has mutated into using Probox vehicles and other means of unconventional public transport, another menace has emerged; the boda boda.

The riders appear to have the licence to drive on the wrong side of the highway and vandalise or burn any vehicle that may have a brush with the motorbike as it blindsides motorists. There have been instances when boda boda operators have been reported to mete out extrajudicial sentences to anyone who may have rubbed them the wrong way.

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The Nairobi Metropolitan Service is now struggling to create order by having bus parks outside the central business district. Only time will tell whether such measures will succeed.

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