I teach at St. Paul’s University near the town of Limuru, which is up into the highlands of Kenya about 30 kms (20 miles) from my home in Karen. When I have access to a car, I can make the trip in about 35 minutes. We live on the ‘happy side’ of Nairobi, which means we live on the western edge of the city and, going northwest to Limuru, miss all the rush hour big city traffic.
However all this week I have not had access to a vehicle. So I’ve had to rely on local transportation. Which is a very nice way of saying I’ve had to ride matatus.
This is what my ride home was like today. I left campus at about 11 AM. I found a matatu that was going past the Ndenderu road where I hoped to hope another matatu. I climbed in. It was almost empty. At this point I must explain that a matatu is an old falling apart version of a m passenger van. The seats have been taken out and replaced by less comfortable versions whose only advantage is they can hold more people. Legally, matatus can hold 14 passengers. Presently these appear to be merely words that have no recognizable meaning.
As soon as I got into the matatu, the driver turned it around and headed back towards and then past the university, picking up occasional passengers and looking for more. When we had gone far enough to make me concerned that I was on the wrong matatu, we turned back around and weaved and swerved back to our original place. A small crowd of people had by this time gathered and flooded in as soon as the side door slid open. I had mothers with children on either side of me and two more behind me. Someone else had a large bag of something that reached to the ceiling. We had 18 people, we were ready to go.
The early morning fog had cleared and as we rounded the bend there was the spectacular view of Nairobi stretching out for miles below on the high savannah that slopes from the base of the highlands all the way to the Indian Ocean hundreds of miles away. Meanwhile the driver is swerving around potholes, passing slow moving trucks somehow managing to avoid head on collisions with on rushing cars. The conductor asks for my money and I give him my 40 shillings for the 10 km downhill ride to Ndenderu.
The door slid open and I didn’t quite ‘alight’ but rather slid, scooched and finally flung myself and my computer bag out the door. Now I had to find a Matatu that would hopefully take me to the town of Kikuyu. There were three on the side of the road waiting for passengers. I learned from a helpful conductor that none of them were going to Kikuyu, but that this one was going to the even smaller town of Wangige and that I could find one to Kikuyu there. So by faith I climbed aboard.
When we were full, about 10 minutes later, we took off. We went about 100 meters and picked up another passenger. Half a kilometer later we pulled over, another two were pulled aboard. Down a steep hill and up to the top and, another passenger somehow gets on our full to my eyes matatu. Again we stop. Two more. Down a steep hill, and more people, this time four. I was not sure I wanted to look back and see how they were doing this. And we actually stopped again and somehow another two ‘traditionally built’ Kikuyu ladies hoisted themselves somehow on board.
Somehow we arrived at Wangige without bursting. I found a matatu that seemed to be going to Dagoretti, which was on the other side of Kikuyu. Same process. Wait as passengers one by one fill the matatu up. Again it took about ten minutes and with the usual results in that my knees were squashed under my chin and I had elbows on either side of me pinning me in place. Once ‘full’ we started out. The driver found several people alongside the road to add to our number, and after several kilometers another several indicated they wanted to get off, necessitating a harrowing exit off the tarmac and onto a unusually heavily eroded shoulder. However as we were approaching Kikuyu the driver turned off to take the major highway into Nairobi. He would eventually get to Dagoretti, but only after going halfway around the world to to do so the back way. So I got off and waited for yet another matatu to take me the final 3 kms to Kikuyu. After 12 minutes of waiting, one came, and this time it was me trying to squash into the already existing passengerage. This one also had a barrier built across the back of the front driver’s bench, meaning one could not look ahead. Since I am prone to motion sickness this is not my favorite way to ride. But fortunately, it was just a few minutes into Kikuyu and then off into the regrettably rutted matatu parking area. So I sprung out and went looking for my next matatu.
I saw one almost full wanting to leave for Dagoretti Market, so I quickly made for it and plunged in. It was the usual combination of women with heavy baskets and some men dressed in work clothes with bags of tools and others dressed immaculately in suits with brief cases. And the lady sitting in front of me had four stacked cartons (lap to ceiling) of fluffy yellow chicks, who were evidently not very happy to be on this ride. The door slams shut and off we go. Except the battery is dead. So a bunch of matatu colleagues push us off and we trundle our way bouncing across the rutted parking lot. The chicks are now very unhappy and letting us know it. We emerge onto the main road and now must cross a series of severe speed bumps. The chicks are now most unhappy as we are flung up and down. And as we clear the bumps and gain speed, we suddenly are slammed and swerved to a stop to pick up another passenger. This happens three more times. The chicks should have been catatonic by now, or maybe I am projecting. At any rate, four big boxes of chicks right in front of me make a remarkable amount of noise.
The chicks and I and the rest of our passengers make it into the slum of Dagoretti Market. I get out and now must walk the next 100 meters to where the matatus to Karen (and thus to the University where I live) are loading passengers. I notice an Asian (Chinese? Korean?) lady walking parallel to me on the other side of the road, wearing a nicely designed face mask. I decide that there are some things I just do not need to know about. Anyway, the lady in the facemask and I get on the same matatu. More traditionally built ladies, more workmen, more professionally-dressed young women with nice shoes, someone loads a ginormous bag of cabbages on top. So we are loaded and ready. The door slams and we’re off. Until we’re not. We pull off immediately though a lake of rubbish because someone else really wants to ride with us. It’s only 3 kms from Dagoretti Market to our AIU compound, but we make 5 stops before we finally bump over the speed bumps that announce our campus. Grateful to have survived, I emerge and pass through our gates, two hours and six matatus after I left St. Paul’s, but just in time to make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.
I have to keep reminding myself that most of the people who live around me are without a vehicle, and this is their only way of getting around. I was thinking about this last night, when I had to take matatus and buses through Nairobi to get home. It took me three hours from when I left school to when I arrived at home in the dark. Two ladies who accompanied me from school on the first leg of that trip make that journey twice a day, and both times during Nairobi’s maddening rush hour.
Welcome to my world!