Hakuna Matatu

I’ve been promising this for two days now, so here it comes.

You all know what Hakuna Matata means. Well, all of you who have watched Lion King. And those of you who have read my last few blogs will also know what a Matatu is. So Hakuna Matatu means there are no minibuses.

This was the situation when I arrived in Kenya. There were no minibusses, and no busses either. And you would have expected them to be there. They are part of the infrastructure here. Small crowded dangerous fast moving vehicles competing vigorously with one another for trade with conductors called touts shouting and husstling and converting byestanders into passengers whether they want to travel or not. Once aboard you didn’t need a seatbelt most of the time as the other passengers formed a perfect tesselation. The drivers would go as fast as they could and accidents (where, suddenly, being held in your seat by your neighbour suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea) were frequent and catastrophic. Also frequent and undesirable were pocket-picking and extortion. All this I have gleaned from the Kenyans, because since one week before I arrived, this is no longer the case. The public transport industry in Kenya is, of course, private. But in February 2004 it was regulated.

The new rules required that:

  • all busses and matatus be fitted with speed governors set to 80kmh
  • vehicles must be licenced and must display a yellow stripe on the side showing the number of passengers thet are licenced to carry
  • drivers must be approved and licenced
  • conductors/touts too
  • all vehicles must have passenger seatbelts fitted
  • passengers must wear them
  • passengers not wearing seatbelts will be fined by the police

    As a consequence of all this, when I arrived there were almost no busses of any sort on the roads of Nairobi. They were being “fitted out”. There were rumors that the seatbelts were not available. There were counter-rumors that it was drivers who were in short supply as many of them could not get licences due to criminal records, not having driving licences, etc. There were huge queues in the streets of the city. And people were walking everywhere. Those who had cars took to the roads, meaning that traffic was in gridlock most of the day. And when some sort of bus arrived, and if it had space for additional passengers (remember nobody is allowed to stand, or sit between seats, and all passengers are keen to enforce this now to avoid fines) the cost of traveling had gone up threefold.

    The prices are still high, but most of the busses and matatus are back on the street now. Of course their total capacity is less then it used to be, and their top speed is less also. But Kenyans are happy about all this. Even when they couldn’t travel anywhere, they were happy that the government was doing something to address the terrible state that transport had gotten into. Its harder (though, of course not impossible) to pick pockets on the bus now that everyone has a seat (although see my other message: seat space is small). And road traffic accidents are less frequent now that the vans trundle along at 80kmh. Prices are still much higher, but kenyas seem happy to be paying for an improved, safer journey.

    I for one, though mimi simkenya am glad that these changes came before I arrived.

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