Friday, April 18, 2008
The most famous dangerous and crowded conveyances in the world are Kenyan matatus, the mini-vans that careen though the streets here in incredible numbers. Officially known as PSVs – Passenger Service Vehicles – their accident rate climbed so high that in 2004 the Transport minister forced a law requiring speed governors and seat belts. Yesterday, as I was blasting along the highway in a matatu, the insurance industry rescinded a 15 percent premium break originally given after the law was imposed. The transport minister who pushed the law is gone and yesterday the Transport Licensing Board told the Daily Nation newspaper that most of the matatu’s speed governors had been “tampered with,” and that “most PSVs were moving at speeds between 140 and 160 kmh, instead of the stipulated 80 kmh.”
“Travelers on Kenya’s roads,” the licensing board’s chairmen told the Nation, “are increasingly being put at risk because of the matatu madness.”
Mad but efficient. Waiting on the train and dhow yesterday, I decided to find a beach north of Mombasa. A travel agent said “White Sands” was the closest, and a few minutes later I am being assaulted by too many choices:
"Bamburi, Bamburi, Bamburi."
The shouts come so fast they sound like one long sing-song word.
"Ferry, Ferry, Ferry, Ferry."
Malindi, Malindi, Malindi." Malindi; that's it. I squish into the Hungry Vulture.
We are nine, and then in rapid succession ten, 12 and fourteen, plus driver and boy.
“Malindi, Malindi, Malindi,” the bus boy, who’s a man, not a boy, shouts again and again, like a cd stuck on skip. He rides with his head and shoulders out of the open door window, scanning the crowded streets. He’s not just collecting money and operating the door, he’s actively selling, cajoling, sniffing for the slightest sense of someone, anyone, contemplating a ride. Two hard bangs with his knuckles and the matatu swerves to the curb; the door slides open and out he jumps. A woman jumps in, steps on my feet – wide hips and thighs pushing against my shoulders – and squeezes into the back.
Two more hard, fast raps and the matatu is off. The boy swings in, slides the door forward with a bang, 50-shilling bills folded lengthwise between his pinky and ring finger. A tap – he doesn’t even make eye contact – and we hand over our 40 shillings, about 65 cents.
Had we been shot into space to a distant planet we would have been the perfect sample of humanity, conveniently packed into a can.
Next to me is a woman in black, head to toe (which I find unsettling, unable to read face or expression or even dress), only her eyes darting about, her left hand ornately hennaed. Behind us a dark black woman with almost shaved head, a baby on her back, with long dangling star-shaped earrings and red beads around her neck. In front of me a woman with her arms covered in silver bracelets and a purple turban around her head, clutching a bucket wrapped in plastic, a Rasta guy next to her, and men in ubiquitous t-shirts and flip-flops. And me. The smell of humanity as raw and acrid as an eastern shore chicken house in August.
Knock, knock, swerve, open, shut, slam, knock; brake and accelerate and honk and swerve – the driver’s eyes never leave the road and the pace is fast; a dance times a hundred, a thousand, as matatus everywhere all around move in frenetic step honking and braking and bus boys jumping in and out, past rows of market stalls of sticks and plastic sheeting and carpentry shops displaying beds and coffins, that goes on for miles and miles. The third world is all about tiny margins of profit in billions of miniscule exchanges; speed and maximum capacity are of the essence. Regulation; safety; comfort – they cost money and there is no money here. Or rather, there’s money, it’s just like grains of sand instead of jewels that fill your hands.
But it works: in 20 minutes I am at the beach. Even more impressive, on my way home I had to catch a matatu from the highway and wondered how long I’d have to wait. No worries: I stand on the roadside for 11 seconds before a matatu scoops me up and deposits me at the Mombasa post office, there to grab a waiting tuktuk for my hotel. Total cost: about a dollar.
Off to the port to see Captain Mohammed and port boss Hamed, who sit around a scarred wooden table in a small office overlooking the Indian Ocean, talking of Dubai and Somalia and Zanzibar.