This morning in the newspapers, Kenyans are waking up to news of the fourth road accident this month alone in which more than 10 people have been killed. There will be all manner of attempts to explain what is happening including some silly one that the Kenyan August jinx has moved to September. There are many possible reasons for such accidents but most of these are due to human error. Drivers, especially those of public service vehicles have been speeding, breaking many traffic laws with impunity, driving unroadworthy vehicles, overloading and many times bribing their way out of possible arrest.
I have always had a healthy disrespect for public transport. This has grown into an almost full blown phobia. Kenya has a notorious matatu culture characterised by gross indiscipline and impunity on the roads. I started actively avoiding public transport in the late 80s as a first year student in University. I was a non-resident student for most of my time there. I acquired a bicycle that I used to ride to and from school. Even though it was also dangerous, I figured I would be more in control. These days I feel as though when I board a public transport vehicle, I am willingly surrendering my life to a miraa-chewing gang of thugs who drive the way they want, bribing through police checks. The driver is, in my estimation a school dropout, overworking himself to raise enough money for the day for himself, the tout and eventually for the owner of the vehicle. I began to feel that I could only take public transport when it was absolutely inevitable or better still, if the driver allowed me to take the wheel. Don’t even get me started on the boda boda bicycle/motorcycle taxis. I remember taking one in Kitui and insisting that the rider becomes my passenger and he obliged. These have the notorious habit of carrying more than one passenger making it even more stupid and dangerous as it is even harder to control. Most motorcycle taxi riders are ‘promoted’ from disguised unemployment as bicycle taxi operators. Several incidents and experiences have only increased and reinforced my disrespect and mortal fear of public transport.
In 1994, I did a matatu trip to Murang’a during which I made the majority of my resolutions regarding public transport. I asked God to help me to never have to travel anywhere far by matatu ever for the rest of my life. I asked God to enable me to afford my own car, motorcycle, or whatever item of personal transport solution I needed so as to never have to surrender my life ever to these thugs. I boarded the matatu in Nairobi and made the silly mistake of sitting in the front seat next to the driver. Whenever I take a matatu, it is interesting to see the people, especially men in cheap suits, choosing to sit only next to the driver or let the matatu pass and wait for another one. It appears to be a more dignified seat, separating you from the ‘kawaida watus’ behind. Of course since the front seats three, including the driver, should another man feel too good to join the watus behind, you come out and let him sit between you and the driver thereby also insulating you from the driver’s bad breath and stupid stories.
For some reason, this time there was no passenger between me and the driver. After weaving through traffic, we joined Thika Road and the driver now wachiliad the vehicle to see how fast it could go. Everyone was quiet at the back and I assumed that they were so confident in the driver’s skills that many were even asleep. Blissfully ignorant, stupid sleep. It was a brand new vehicle and in my estimation from the registration number not more than a month old. The only sound I could hear that was not normal was a ticking sound near the driver which, judging by how regular it was, I assumed it was some over-enthusiastic analogue clock on the dashboard. As we passed Thika town, I discovered with great shock what the ticking sound was. It was the speedometer needle trying to pass the 180 kph mark! I sat up now, the little sleep coming up disappeared completely. I think I must have had the expression I have seen some people have in movies when they take their first roller-coaster ride. I became even more attentive to the driver’s stories and in my mind started taking notes about what to tell the police or newspaper reporters about the accident we were about to have if I survived it. The driver’s stories were not helping either. He was merely just pointing out spots where major accidents had occurred on that road.
“Unakubuka ire Marura iriuwa watu ichirini? Iriagukia pare, hata ire muti ndio irivuja” (remember the Marura bus that killed twenty passengers? It rolled over there, that tree is what stopped it)
I repeated my prayer more earnestly and braced myself. What had I gotten myself into? It also dawned on me so clearly that even if I made it to Murang’a, I would still have to endure the ride back. That realisation, obvious as it was, scared me more than sharing a sausage with a Doberman.
In the Moi years roads were terrible. I think part of Moi’s legacy of bad governance, alleged dictatorship and corruption were the dilapidated roads. Many accidents were actually caused by bad roads. Buses would lose control trying to avoid a pothole and end up killing people and injuring many others. Kibaki on the other hand, will leave us with some very good roads. These have also brought a lot of accidents due to overspeeding.
I recently drove on the Nairobi-Narok road. Beautiful road. I love driving, especially on a good road, in a good car listening to good music. Bliss. Suddenly, I was overtaken by, was it a plane? Was it a jet? No! It was a Nyamira Express! This bus, filled to capacity overtook me. I was doing 120kph and it passed me as if I was going in reverse. I was also overtaken by great anger and indignation. This driver, I tried to picture him, was carrying sixty possible funeral arrangements, stupidly shrubbing stories about miraa or bananas. I became so angry. I wanted to go past him, stop at the first police check and have the cops wait for him and arrest him while I took pictures. I’ve done that before on another road. I reached 140kph and gave up. I just could not catch him. I prepared myself to be interviewed by the media as one of the people who would arrive at the scene seconds after the accident. This one was going to be big, the President, the Prime Minister and even Kalonzo would disrupt their busy schedules and take helicopters to the scene. Surely even a day or two of mourning would be declared. Then surely September would be the new August, with the Sinai fire killing a hundred, Yokozuna killing and blinding others.
This, ladies and gentlemen is what we have allowed ourselves to become. Cargo that breathes.
What public transport stories do you have?
STOP PRESS: Sad to hear about the passing of Prof. Wangari Maathai. RIP. True Legend