Tuesday, April 22, 2008
More Matatu Madness
Sometimes riding the Express is exhausting. But the harder I push, the wilder and more insightful the ride, as I slip deeper into modern Africa. Yesterday, I spent 17 hours hurtling – and sometimes going nowhere at all – through Nairobi with matatu driver Joseph Kimani and tout Wakaba Phillip.
Kimani was up at 3:45 am; an hour later he picked up the matatu he drives in Ngong Town, in the shadow of the Ngong hills, not far from Out of Africa author Karen Blixen’s coffee farm. Or what’s left of it. “I had a farm in Africa…” is one of those famous literary opening lines, but her elegiac words recall a different Africa. Ngong Town now is all overcrowded mud and trash and corrugated shacks, with the occasional Masai warrior looking like a Hollywood extra still in costume waiting at a bus stop.
Kimani and Phillip fired up their matatu and headed down Ngong Road to “town,” as downtown Nairobi is called. I rendezvoused with them at 6:30 am at the route 111 staging area: the Nairobi railway station.
It was just getting light; literally hundreds of matatus, from 14 passenger minivans to 51 passenger truck/buses, were angling, squeezing, honking, pushing, to navigate a semicircle that they entered empty and left full. Kimani, 32, with a wispy mustache and a wiry body, worked the wheel and gears, while Phillip, 30, ran back and forth waving his arms, shouting and banging on other matatus, trying to leverage Kimani through the madness while enticing passengers. (That’s not all Phillip did, but the other stuff I didn’t see, never saw – it was all too quick, too fluid, too under-the-radar – and didn’t even learn about until midnight, 17 hours later.) Competition was fierce. Every matatu was going the same route.
The semicircle was 150 yards tops; it took nearly 45 minutes – think the tank scene in the film Patton. Matatus were jumping the curb onto the sidewalk, parrying, jockeying, blocking each other’s doors; when we broke free of it Phillip swung up into the doorway and we blasted up Ngong Road, an undivided two-lane wide strip of cracked blacktop, with the Bee Gees at deafening volume.
Back and forth from Town to Ngong we went all day as the traffic built; in places it took 15 minutes to move two blocks – wall to wall, bumper to bumper matatus honking and flashing their lights and blasting music, some with monitors pumping out music videos.
An hour and a half away, the Ngong Town staging area was a football field sized patch of mud and banana peels and cornhusks and cigarette wrappers and crushed plastic water bottles surrounded by four-foot square market stalls.
We pulled in, Kimani and Phillip shouted “tea time!” and leaped off the bus. We crossed the mud, crossed the muddy road, waded through garbage, wolfed down fried dough and a somosa and sweet, milky tea in a concrete room, and hit the staging area again. And that’s when the complexity of it all started to hit me, the minute economic scale spread over as wide a net as possible.
A small army of touts fanned out to fill the bus. “Forty, forty, forty,” they called. “Fortytown, fortytown, fortytown,” – 40 shillings to Town. The touts were freelance; Phillip would pay them each 40 or 50 shillings for their work.
And on it went, at a grueling pace, the economy of it all hard to grasp. A 14-passenger matatu cost 70 shillings and took 13; in a 15-hour day it could make six to seven roundtrips, taking in six to seven thousand shillings, about $100. A 51-passenger matatu cost 40 shillings and only made five to six trips. For passengers the bigger one was slower and thus cheaper; but for the driver and tout, the bigger matatu was better, the volume adding up to more income. Still, a driver and tout like Kimani and Phillip made about KS 600 a day - $10 – paid in cash at the end of every evening. Maybe.
The speed, the weaving and honking and cajoling; at first I saw it as some form of romantic and crazy African expression. But that was wrong. It was simple economics: desperate and hungry poor people trying to squeeze one more passenger, one more round-trip into a day that never seemed to end, a day where literally every shilling counted.
At noon we shattered a main front leaf spring and Kimani sped off to the garage. But it was no garage; it was a place that boggled my mind, that stretched my imagination. It was Dickensian: block after block of mud passageways littered with garbage and upended vehicles and men sleeping on piles of tires and the sparks of welders and the smell of smoke and oil and diesel and Bondo. It was one lane wide with two-way traffic. It was hot and glaring, a place of burning fires and braziers and hammering and music, and the mud was so dark, so black, so viscous, it was like oil. It was the worst and the most compelling place I have ever seen.
With ferocious hammering and sweating, three men under the bus in the black grime replaced the leaf spring in 90 minutes. The labor charge: 300 shillings. Five dollars.
And so it went. We had a quick lunch at 4:30 in a corrugated roofed butchery amid bloody carcasses. A pile of fatty mutton cut up at our table, a mound of salt and a bowl of ugali – corn flour – eaten with our fingers. $4 for two, including sodas.
And at midnight, 21 hours after they’d started their day, Kimani and Phillip spilled the secrets of the matatu industry over warm pilsner in a Ngong Town bar. They were, in fact, nickeled and dimed at every turn. Two hundred to the police at every staging area, for the “privilege” of working the stage. “That is a good job!” said Kimani. “A policeman at the railway station makes at least 10,000 shillings a day!” One hundred to the Mungiki sect, simple protection money. “If you don’t pay they will cut your head off.” Inspectors and managers and robbers all demanding their share. Kimani’s matatu had been robbed at gunpoint three times; on those days he did not get paid. And they did their part, too: the fare changed according to the situation, price gauging as art. They kicked it up in the rain. They boosted it at rush hour. They had their touts attract passengers at 40 shillings and then made them pay 60, claiming the touts were unauthorized. “If they refuse to pay we don’t let them off the matatu,” Kimani said, laughing.
At 1 am they saw me into a concrete room with no running water behind a steel gate in a world of mud. I was exhausted, beaten up, my neck, back, knees and shoulders aching, hungry for solitude and quiet and cleanliness; my nerves frayed from the constant jangling noise and crowds. Kimani and Phillip had four more days to go before the weekend. Another 70 or 80 hours of work for 50 bucks. And David, their friend, a taxi driver who had introduced us all – he had been working without sleep or food for two days and two nights, living purely off of Mira – the narcotic drug Qat. And yet they were all in a good mood.
I passed out, woke, dressed and stumbled out into a light rain. It was still dark and I didn’t really know where I was. Somewhere near Ngong Town. But, no worries. I stood on the side of the rood and a pair of headlights came around a corner, flashed, and I held out my hand. A matatu swerved to a stop. I piled in, and there was Shakira wiggling her hips on the video. It was six am.
Off to Bamako, Mali tonight, via Addis Ababa….