Once a history professor of mine said about Africa, “ Even though there is scarcity of motor vehicles in Africa, and the road system is not that great, but you will reach your destiny one way or the other.” He said this while he was narrating about his experience in Mali. He had to travel from rural Mali to the capital Bamako. He said that he had to change three vans before he reached Bamako. What amazed him the most, was the fact that, once they reached a cross road, the driver stopped the van and asked how many were going to Bamako. When he (the driver) found that only few were heading to Bamako while the rest were heading to some other town, he made all the passengers heading to Bamako come out of the van. He negotiated with another driver to take his Bamako customers, in exchange for an equal number of his customers heading to whatever town that he was going. Some students laughed and said that was impossible. I looked at them and kept quiet. After class, I went to the professor and told him that is what makes Africa sweet and unique. We know how to survive. He agreed. Enough about the professor; let me go back to Africa.
Once you mention public transport, several come to mind. In Mombasa the most popular ones are the buses and the matatus. Let me start with the buses. Kenya Bus Services (KBS) are basically the only ones running the routes in the island and its vitongoji. No other company takes the local routes. Then there are the mabasi ya Dharamshi, the old Coast buses and Tawakal, which run the provincial routes; to Kwale, Tiwi, Msambweni, and Lunga Lunga to the south, to Voi,Mwatate, and Taveta, to the west, and Malindi, Mambrui, and Lamu to the north. I will say a few lines on the KBS. I am sure we all know its headquater, in Mwembe Tayari. Due to its popularity, our mothers have even coined a Swahili word for a bus. They called any bus as Kenya basi, and the others as Kenya basi ya…… Voi, Malindi, Mswambweni etc. You may hear something like, “ Mamake nanihuyu, unsikiya hiyo ajali ilotokeya Darsalama? Kenya basi mbili zingongana, lakini alhamdulillahi watu wantoka salama.”
These buses are always full, (before the matatus became popular). As kids I remember getting into these buses and stay at the back. Once you see the conductor approaching, we would jump out of the bus without paying the fare. If we were three or four, we would sit at different seats. When the bus conductor comes asking for the bus fare, you always point to someone behind who is paying for both. Sometimes it works, but not always. Last time I was in Mombasa after eight years absence, I found that the KBS buses were scarce and the matatus have taken over. I also noticed that the bus steps are too high compared to the ones I saw in Canada and the USA. No wonder our mothers use to have a hard time getting into the buses. “ Yooooo hebu subiri dereva kidogo.” Says the struggling mother, “ Mtumee!!!! Hebu shika adabu yako na wewe mwanaharamu. Unkaa ka n’gombe mwajivurumiza tu, hamuoni watu, Aah.” Says another, as she gets shoved aside by a passenger, in a hurry to go in. People used to laugh at our mothers and scold them too, “ Hii mama ya kiswahili eh. Mambo yao yote taratibu.” We use to be embarrassed and say, “ Lakini hawa mama zetu nao wataweza kuishi Nairobi, au bara kweli, ikiwa mambo ni haya?” The interesting thing is now, many wish things remained laid back and done the way they used to be. There was something else that I never liked as a kid that many mothers used to do once they have boarded the bus. They will look around and see that there was no empty seat. Then they notice you, a nine, ten eleven or twelve years old seated. Immediately I see the buibui lifted in one hand I know what is coming. “Hebu inuka mwanangu nkupakate, manake nnachoka hata siwezi tena kusimama.” Remember what I said, you are just about to become a teenager or you are in your dawn of teen. You are the coolest person, you feel you are a grown up man, you can’t raise your arm for long because there is an odor coming from your armpit that is not desirable, and then this mother is asking you to sit on her lap. Most of the time we just offer the seat to the lady and move behind. I had a feeling that these mothers kind of knew we would not sit on their laps. AND THEN THERE WAS MATATU…
Matatus are never full. They seem like they are made of elastic or something. There is always a space for one more. The manambas will always make space for one more. I also noticed that manambas did not go to schools that teach customer satisfaction, political correctness, or business ethics. I witnessed a manamba telling a heavy lady, “ Ummh… Mami, siwezi kukuchukuwa . Ikiwa utapanda basi utalipa watu watatu. Manake sikidogo wewe.” The obese lady was begging to be taken, but the manamba just gave her a deaf ear. At the end the woman caved in and agreed to pay for two. The manamba agreed. Then once the lady was in the matatu, she found that the manamba was adding more people to her seat of three. “ Sasa wewe si unsema nilipe watu wawili, mbona waniengezea watu tena kana kwamba nnalipa ya nusu mtu.” The lady started to complain. “ Aah wewe mama poa.” The manamba responds with the least concern. Many people prefer matatu because there is music. The only problem is that the decibels kept going up, and the customers were gradually, turned into hearing impaired by choice. The drivers of the matatus are the coolest guys. They are mostly wearing sheds,made in Taiwan Raybans, and their mouths are in constant movement. Their hearing is limited, and well filtered. They only hear things like, “ Twende!” “ Ngoja dreva!” and the manambas’ chants of, “ Kongowea Kisauni Mlaleo Barsheba Mwandoni!” Or “ Feri! Feri!” or “ Docks! Docks!” while the clicks of the coins in their palm keeps the chanting going. The matatu drivers are always in a hurry to leave and overtake, only to stop the van less than one hundred meters later to pick another customer. I will end this week visa with one that I witnessed close to Mwandoni.
I went to visit a friend of mine who owns a shop by the road. This is one of the busy roads frequented by busses, matatus and lories. Just after the Masjid Aqsa/msikiti wa ijumaa/ msikiti mkubwa/ msikiti wa kisauni Islamic institute, there is a corner, that leads you to mwandoni. There is no more tarmac. It is all sand, and because of the rains, sometimes you come across unnamed lakes. The potholes are big enough to swallow a car. One day a matatu was coming from Bamburi heading to town. Just before they reached to that corner, an electric cable fell down, and dropped right on top of this matatu. Mind you the matatu was full. All you could see was sparkles as the cable was falling. I have never seen a van emptied in such a short time in my life. The first one out was the driver. There was one of those ladies who have to pay for three at the front seat. All I saw was she was out, and the door was not opened. This matatu had about 24 or 25 passengers. In less than 30 seconds, it was empty. Amma kifo chatisha kweli. On the other side of the road another matatu was empty too. One guy who was sandwiched in the middle with his bicycle, found himself beside me asking, “ Nini eh? Napeleka baskili, mara naona tete za moto tu. Hata sijui nimeiangusha vipi ile baskili nikakimbiya.” I maybe rude, but am telling you, you had to be there to understand why I was laughing uncontrollably. I saw the manamba of the matatu that was struck by the cable, shouting to the one- seat- for- three- lady. “ Wewe mama tena hujalipa, fanyafanya basi….” The lady was furious, “ Wewe mwanaharamu, mpumbavu, huna haya tena waja dai pesa hapa. Mshenzi mkubwa. Nsalama nnatoka mzima badala ya kunijuliya hali wewe ndio mwanzo waja uliza pesa zako ( msonyo ). Haya sikulipi basi fanya utakalo fanya.” The lady was going after the manamba with hands akimbo…………To be continued.