Friday, March 9, 2007

The Matatu Experience

Necessity is the mother invention, and Matatus are the result. Thousands upon thousands of panel vans, locally called "Matatu", race up and down the streets, roads, boulevards and highways of Kenya to fill the gap left by the lack of public transportation.

To take a Matatu, I walk down a rough dirt road, dodging goats and chickens, to the Mombasa-Milindi Highway. Highway is an overstatement. It is a very busy paved road with a rocky shoulder streaming with pedestrians. At the end of my dirt road a crowd of people will stand at the highway waiting to get picked up. Every fifth vehicle is an eighteen-wheeler. Every third car is a Matatu with a conductor shouting out the window: "Mtwapa, Mtwapa, Mtwapa" or "Ferry, ferry, ferry", or "Postoffice, Postoffice, Postoffice". During evening rush-hour, when I head out to the pool after work, it's a free for all. Most of the Matatus are full, so when one pulls over for passengers everyone launches for it. The crowd crushes against the van until 15 people squeeze and slither into the rickety seats.

Now the game is on. Looking through the front window is a first-person ride in the very best NASCAR xBox game. Drivers aggressively weave, bob, accelerate and break their way through cars, trucks, bicycles, pull carts, motorcycles and pedestrians. Going off-roading is always an option if that keeps the Matatu in motion. If traffic is stopped in one lane, the two lane highway will turn into a three, four, or even five lane road. Matatus scurring like ants around the congestion.

The Matatu will "alight you", as they say here, anywhere on their route; very convenient. Rap you knuckles on the nearest window or side-wall - or on the ceiling if you are stuck in the middle and can't reach a window or side-wall - and the driver pulls over. Then join your fellow passengers in a spontaneous game of Twister until you tumble out of the still-rolling van; spring loaded like a clown coming out of a car at the circus. It is absolutely impossible for me to accomplish this without sticking my patooty in someone’s face, just impossible. But, no need to apologize. People live through this everyday, and they assume that you wouldn't have bumped them, nudged them, stepped on their foot or even put your patooty in their face if it was at all avoidable.

I'm a bit strange, so I like taking Matatus. It's cramped. It's hot. It's certainly not for everyone, but for me it's a laugh and a rush.

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