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Matatu Ju-ju and a Near-Death Experience

Brian Rath shares the joys of public transport Nairobi-style.

It was approaching nightfall as I worked my way through the usual hubbub of humans and found a half-filled matatu (minibus taxi) going my way. I took a seat at the back and was blessed with a window that opened halfway. A small, single-bulb ceiling-light illuminated the dim interior as people climbed in and took their seats. The matatu filled quickly, as usually happens at this time of evening.

I was just chilling out, pondering the congested street next to me and not noticing much else when the matatu took off without warning. The makanga (conductor) fluttered outside in the wind for a few seconds before swinging himself inside, sliding the door closed.

With everyone settled inside and his makanga safe, the driver proceeded to set the scene for the rest of the trip. The ceiling light went off and with the blip-blip of fluorescent technology, a light on the interior side panel came on. Just then, Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” started up on the powerful sound system.

The blip-blip turned out to be what they call a ‘black-light’ or an ‘ultra-violet’ light. Lo and behold, stenciled everywhere on the bare paint of the matatu interior, in day-glow paint, were little shining motifs of cannabis leaves.

Amongst the black bodies in the matatu, you couldn’t see a thing but for an occasional square of white collar sticking out of a jacket top and there was that usual ‘haze’ that ultra-violet light brings with it. With the cannabis plantation in front of me, Bob Marley piped at high volume, and a haze that could have been mistaken for plumes of ganja smoke, the illusion was entirely convincing.

The scene seemed complete. A stoned silence descended on the matatu’s entranced travelers. The makanga just rocked in his seat with his eyes closed and the driver seemed content to have stage-managed an effect that had everyone rocking slowly. But something was still missing…

The driver leaned imperceptibly forward and, with a little twiddle of this left hand, almost blew the entire rear of the matatu onto the road as he adjusted the sub frequencies of Aston Barrett’s bass. Clearly, the four-string figures weren’t booming enough for the sub in the back. Shite, the guy’s not serious, I thought, as the whole matatu seemed destined to disintegrate.

Everything slowed to a low frequency trance that lasted for the next twenty minutes. I still had not paid by time I signaled the makanga that I wanted to be the first to alight. It must have taken another fifteen seconds for him to register. He eventually gave the usual smacks to the side of the matatu, signaling the driver. Nothing happened. Unusually, the makanga had to repeat the action. The message eventually reached the driver’s brain and we slurred to a stop.

The makanga seemed confused and disoriented as I gave him my fare. And then I had to walk two kilometers back to where I should have been dropped….

Heading out of town towards Thika Road the other evening, traffic was thicker than usual. In the first half hour, the matatu had traveled only 200 meters and the compression of competing cars was fraying nerves. The effect of Nairobi traffic jams can be extreme and it is worse when you are stuck in a haze of fumes looking like The Moors in a Hammer Films horror flick. And things were looking the height of horror tonight.

So we get to Thika’s first traffic roundabout and see a stationary stream of tail lights illuminating eternity. With his patience blown completely and wanting to reach home before midnight, the driver decides that everyone’s life is worth as little as his makanga values his own life (he who willingly risks his life and limb a great many times a day). So what does the driver do?

Rather than go around the roundabout, to join the stream of traffic at the far end, he chooses instead to make a hairpin turn directly into the face of oncoming traffic. With ragga blasting through the sound system, the rhythm is now punctuated with car hooters, screeching tyres and the gasps of terrified passengers.

The matatu driver does the macho thing and calls everyone’s bluff. He drives without deviation in the left lane, which is actually the right lane for vehicles coming towards us! He is going like the blazes and is gaining on a gap forming in front of us, a kilometer up the road. Cars swerving, hooters blasting, passengers praying.

The driver makes a straight line for the gap and without even touching the brakes he mounts the island that separates the traffic traveling in each direction. I am lifted right out my seat and smack my head hard on the metal ridge above me. I cry out loud. The island itself is an unremitting collection of dongas, each one big enough to fit a prostrate cow. He proceeds to bounce us all mercilessly across the divide with no regard for any of the passengers’ shouts.

There’s an audible exhalation of relief from us all as he finds a gap and a bus calmly gives way to the intruder from the side. The driver offers no apology and carries on as if nothing happened. Then, for some reason, he takes the ragga disc out the player puts an American gospel CD on…

“Tonight we’re giving thanks and praise”, starts the female voice to fabulous applause …