Matatu Conductors

Everyday scenes

Everyday scenes

Next to morticians (I think) and hospital janitors, matatu conductors have the worst jobs. And to believe I actually envied them (the conductors/touts) when I was young for the free rides to and from town. They have to hustle for passengers in between peak times, bribe lots of hungry cops along the way, contend with frustrating passengers who want to be dropped off anywhere or who refuse to pay up, keep up with who’s paid fare and who’s not (it’s not like they issue tickets so they have to rely on memory.) To compound it all, there is the attitude they face from most people about their job, after all, there are no qualifications apart from the ability to shout at the top of your longs. So most people just assume conductors are losers who never made it beyond high school.

I have met my fair share of smart conductors, charming conductors, polite conductors, but more than enough share of rude and crude conductors. They poke your back to demand fare. They literally push you into the matatu, and figuratively push you out when you are leaving. They will share your seat and put their arms over your shoulder, so your face is buried in their armpits. They will chew in your face and talk suggestively.

This evening is no different. It has just rained, and there are long queues for matatus or giant crowds pushing and shoving trying to get a ride home. I decide to stand aside, wishing I was elsewhere. It’s been about three months since I finished high school and I have a lousy job as a salesgirl at some bookstore. Let’s just say am glad it’s a fixed salary otherwise my commission would amount to almost nothing. It’s been a hustle getting home every evening.

As I stand here watching these crowds, wondering when they will thin out, one conductor approaches me. Great. Now he’s going to poke my back and ask me if I want to enter his matatu. However, he just asks me politely if there was anything he could do to make my evening better, since I look like hell. I retort that he can get me a comfortable seat in the matatu and then leave me alone. He does just that. He guides me to the front seat of the matatu, makes whoever was sitting there leave and I finally feel like I can catch a break.

The following day, I get off from work about the same time. Is it coincidence that the same matatu I boarded is here today at this time? I look around for the conductor. He smiles and nodes towards the front seat. I can’t believe he reserved it for me. Now I don’t have to stand aside or join in the jostling for a matatu. He then continues waiting for the matatu to fill. He’s really something, I realize. He’s tall and well dressed. Of course he’s not wearing that generic maroon uniform but a fitting t-shirt and jeans. Maybe some Timbaland boots. Real or fake, who cares. I can’t tell them

That’s how it started. Every evening, I would find my seat reserved. I would pay my fare then settle comfortably, knowing the matatu will be stopped as near home as possible and he would open matatu door to usher me out. Once in a while, I caught the matatu in the morning, but all evenings, I made sure I waited for it.

He never suggested anything untoward. He was always respectable. He treated me like a damsel in distress, and he, the knight in shining armour. He was always charming, always saying the right thing. He made my evenings.
I could not help but compare him to the other conductors I had encountered. I realize I want to know more about him.

That’s how I started asking the personal conversations. And we became good friends. I could tell him anything. Including my problems and my dreams. I even told him what I thought were my faults and mistakes. And he said lines like I am not here to judge you, am just here to love you.
How could I help it? I fell for him.

And now my friends are wondering how I can be going out with a conductor. Perhaps this narration will answer their questions.


Tales From Ocha: A Matatu’s Jorney.

This is how it was those days

This is how it was those days

“Stand, stand up so they can see you.”
My grandma is urging me.

No, she is not showing me off to some prospective suitors. She is trying to convince the conductor that I should pay less because am under 18. Of course I am not under 18, haven’t been in a while.

This journey started well. We woke up early. We wore our best (most coloured). We took a breakfast of hot sweet tea. ( I have always found that description of tea quite disturbing.) Then we went to the stage to wait for a matatu.

In our ocha, there are no traffic rules. Perhaps because there is virtually no roads, let alone traffic. We stood by the stage for hours, with my grandma rejecting matatu after another ( the owner is associated with witchcraft, the mother-in-law of the owner of the yellow one is an evil woman, that one was involved in an accident, that one is too red…etc). when we finally found one that she liked, I was glad.

Now she is refusing to pay fare. I remember when we were young, height was used to determine if you pay fare or not. If you don’t reach the roof of the matatu at full height, then you are too young to pay. For the height-impaired like me, it took many years of free rides before I grew tall enough to start paying.
That was when anyone you are travelling with used to tell you:

“Stand.. stand up! Let them see you.”

So you stand to your full height, find you are a few inches short of the roof and you are let go.

Even though am still short, there are definitely other signs of growth that will not fool anyone into believing am a scrawny thirteen year old who can pass for 10. My grandma has realized that, so now she is insisting on paying half the fare because am under 18, which am not. She wants me to stand up so everyone can assess for themselves my age. The conductor is losing patience.

Conductors in ocha have to have patience. No one easily parts with their money. They will delay, saying it’s buried somewhere deep in their clothes (and it usually is), and you can’t threaten chuck someone forcefully before their destination, otherwise everyone else might turn against you. But they get back their own when they pack 50 of you into a 14-seat matatu. True story. There is no breathing space.

The cop who will stop you will not only ask for a bribe, but a free ride too. The matatu will stop at every stage possible, whether there is anyone boarding or alighting.

Thus we travelled through the countryside, my face partially buried in someone else’s armpit, no scenery to enjoy because you can’t see the through the humanity to outside, got out covered in dust that somehow found its way onto your brightly coloured clothes and alighting amidst stares of fellow passengers assessing my age because in the end, my grandma paid ¾ of the fare.