Kenya’s Transportation: Always a Different Experience

Published on 25th October 2005

One of the most noticeable living differences between the United States and Kenya is apparent in the transportation industry. In Washington DC, people use the metro transit system. These stations are marked by big signs and usually have escalators to take people underground. Once underground, a commuter will buy a ticket right outside the platform with the option of purchasing one that lasts a week, a day or has a certain amount of value attached to it. They will then slide their ticket through a machine that will, once registering the ticket, allow the passenger to pass onto a bus platform. On the platform there is a screen that tells the passenger exactly how long they will have to wait for the train, by the minute, and where the train will be going. When the train is about to arrive lights on the ground in front of the track begin to blink. The train arrives, slows down and stops. Usually, with the exception of rush hour, you find that there is no rush and overcrowding as there are many doors open on the same train. The train automatically stops at every station and you simply get off when you need to.

The system in Kenya is a little bit different. First of all, matatu (One of the most commonly used means of Kenya’s road transport) stages are not marked. A foreigner can spend hours trying to figure out where the matatus are stopping. Also, they often stop anywhere, even in the middle of the highway. I was convinced that matatus could take and leave customers wherever they wanted and was very surprised to find that it was actually illegal. So let’s assume that one has found the matatu stage, usually by asking since there are no sign posts then, what follows is the dilemma of getting on a matatu. An American would assume that whoever arrived at the stage first should be the first to catch a ride and so on. Only to realize that there is often a crowd of people standing at the stage who are not in a rush, and making no attempt to get on a matatu. I still haven’t figured out if they’re playing hard to get, waiting for a friend to arrive before leaving or are just checking out the scenery. Once you get past the idea that there is no line and it’s okay to go past someone who was there before you, you have to decide whether or not its safe to jump into a moving vehicle, because most times the matatus don’t fully stop. It is in one’s best interest to accept the fact that unless you are willing to jump a moving matatu, you may not be going anywhere.

Once you are in the matatu, there is a live chicken at your feet, and no one seems to find it a strange phenomenon. So you have to get along with it. Three children get into the full matatu and one of them ends up sitting on your lap. Again, no one finds this bazaar so you make sure your wallet is secure and think “Hakuna Matata” (There is no problem). The man near the door sticks out his hand, so you give him Ksh.20. Sometimes, even though you know you should pay Ksh.20, he tells you its Ksh. 30 or 40. At this point it really depends on your mood, you can argue about it or you can just pay him. Always remember to ask the price before getting into the next matatu. When arguing, try to insert the word ‘’bob’ in your argument – it makes them think you know what you are doing and they’re less prone to rip you off. Next, you must discover how to get off the matatu, this is probably the simplest part. Get the attention of the “modo” (person collecting the money), and make a little out motion with your hand, if he looks confused, say ‘next stop’.

You now know what is going on, you’ve done it before and you’re doing it again. You find the stage and get on a matatu. You already know which way it goes and where it ends up, only to find that it has changed its route and you have no idea where you are or where you’ll end up. Welcome to the world of illegal matatus. Most likely you will be a little bit lost when you finally get out of the vehicle. The best things to do is grin and bear it, just remember to ask the “modo” where you are and how to get where you’re going when you get off – chances are that he’ll help you out. One thing you can be sure of on the metro – it’s always the same experience. One thing you can be sure of on a matatu – it’s always a different experience.

 


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