You have frequently read the word matatu and are probably wondering by now what the heck is it. Some of my readers may have discerned it is a mode of transport and of course, those clever ones would be correct. But let me say, there is no mode of transport like the matatu in existance in America. Plain and simple: matatus are part taxi, part bus, all party.
Sorry, I just paused to win a game of solitaire. I am loving solitaire.
Ok, so back to the matatus. Here’s how they work. They run a fixed route every day. They hole about 14 people (give or take depending on time of day, busy-ness, and people’s willingess to sit on each others laps. You pay a price based on how far you want to go, and the matatu will stop anywhere along the route. The prices are in increments of 5 shillings, and you pay based on a zone-like system. You are able to flag down any matatu that is driving by and if they have an empty seat they will stop and if your destination is along the route, you’re good to go. My description of the system makes it seem almost organized, but have no fear, like everything else in Kenya, it’s not.
The system works fine and I will start with the positive. The prices are very cheap, allowing the average Kenya to traverse the entire country if he wanted for relatively little money. The matatus themselves, though rickety, are probably some of the most loved vehicles in this country, as they are the lifebloog of the drivers and conductors that operate them. As a result, they often get personalized and decked out with sound systems and neon lights; the works. Hence the “all party,” comment above. Matatus are a great way to get in to the mood to go out at night, as they are a party unto themselves and you cannot help but get energized.
But the system is not without its serious flaws. First and foremost, prices are not fixed, which means a conductor/driver pair can decide on what to charge the passengers without talking with anyone else, though thankfully this does not happen often at all. What happens more though is that 1) they almost always try to overcharge the mzungu (ME!) or 2) price inconsistencies occur during busier periods where some touts (conductors) try to overcharge.
Another problem is that though I speak of zones, and though some cities have “stages,” ultimately the matatu will stop whenever a passenger wishes. Which means that due to a certain unamed attribute that I have noticed of the general population (hint, it rhymes with smaziness), a matatu will stop to let out a passenger, and then stop again literally 10 feet later to let out another, and then again 10 feet later to let out another. I will fully admit, I have been the instigator of such action myself once, but usually I give myself a 100 feet bubble in which if the matatu has stopped, I will get out and walk. It confuses the Kenyans. I always confuse the Kenyans.
On the reverse of this coin, matatus will also stop every 10 feet to pick up a passenger, or a potential passenger, or maybe will stop just to yell at people who very obviously do not want to be going anywhere but still telling them to get on the matatu. If you are really lucky, this stopping does not overlap with letting off a passgenger and you get on a matatu that will thus stop every FIVE feet. You are really lucky then! It’s also the reason why when telling people where we are going and when we will meet them, we need to take into account “matatu time.” As if Swahili time weren’t slow enough, matatu time brings travel time to a crawl. It takes me anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to travel what I would say is roughly 5 miles from where i get on the matatu to the Likoni Ferry, heading into mombasa. Ridiculous.
It also doesn’t help that the conductors when asking for money are almost always dicks (pardon the french). They just are. And sometimes so are the drivers. In fact, a friend of mine was on a matatu where the driver was in a bad mood, so he decided to run down a group of women who had flagged down the matatu. There is a very good chance one of the women died.
Today, I was on a matatu coming home from town when two of the passengers started getting angry at the tout. There was a fare hike about a month and a half ago, where it now costs five shillings more to come home from the ferry, but only if you get on at the ferry. Whatever. Five shillings is about the cost of a big banana. But for people who don’t take the matatu often, this is a shock. It’s supposed to be only 20 shillings not 25! Of course, because no tout/driver pair advertises their rates, the Kenyan passengers default to thinking the tout is trying to screw them, which is actually a legitimate default position to take, and I myself take it when traveling in unknown parts.
Finally, because I see this same argument every time I come home from the ferry, I speak up. So everyone shuts up because what the heck is this mzungu doing talking. And for once I defend the dick tout, and kindly inform the complaining customers that in fact the tout is not trying to screw them and that the rate was changed weeks ago and also throw in an opinion line about how the the matatus should post their rates.
The tout thanks me for helping and the fighting continues.
Matatus are fun, and they legitimately are a great way to get around Kenya, but you never really know quite the experience you are going to get when you get into that van and sit down.