Just before I came to own what I call my car, a rickety jalopy, I was a not-so-proud matatu user.
I lived in Nakuru with my then young family and using public transport was a matter of course. I lived in Free Hold estate and usually boarded the Phase Two or Langa Langa matatus.
One pleasant Friday evening, I left work, humming a happy tune and joined my friends for a tipple. One of them, a bearded, mean-spirited bloke, hardly ever bought a round, and always found excuses to visit the loo when it was his turn to buy but that is a story for another day.
Shortly after 9pm, I walked to the terminus and boarded a rusty matatu, the Nissan variety that carried slightly over 16 passengers, four on each row of seats.
I was the last one to board and sat next to the sliding door, which I noticed had to be coaxed to close. The tout, reeking of bootleg liquor and stale sweat, used all of his slight muscle might to heave and pull the door shut.
My instincts told me to expect more drama but I consoled myself with the assurance that I always got home.
I peeped at the driver as he made to start the car. There was no ignition key and he fumbled with a couple of wires before he asked the tout to give the car a little push. “Shtua hii kitu bwana,” he yelled above the din of excited drunken talk.
The journey from town was mostly downhill, so we hurtled down as every part of the matatu creaked and squeaked, threatening to fall apart.
Just near Ngala School for the Deaf, the door made a sudden scraping noise and flew off, landing on the tarmac setting off sparks.
I was startled by a gush of wind as frightened women screamed and the car came to a slow, unwilling stop hundreds of metres away. If you think we had good brakes, you have not been listening.
The tout scampered to where the miserable door lay on the tarmac. It was by sheer luck that there was no car behind us, or the story would have been radically different. We stared, open-mouthed, as the tout made a quick job of affixing the door, with grating and screeching noises. To test that we were safe, he banged it once, twice with his bony fist and declared the car was as good to go. Of course, we were being taken for a ride.
The excited talk and the crazy bonhomie that erupts among drunken strangers had ceased, and it resumed at full cry, now that that little bit of drama was behind us.
Matatu drivers and touts then, popular as they were (perhaps because they were the only means of commute) did little to endear themselves to patrons.
Maybe it was their working conditions. I mean, if your place of work is a smoke-filled jalopy that vibrates until even the innards, spleen and intestines threaten to fall off, you are unlikely to be in a pleasant mood by evening. Or at all.
A few days after that little incident I rode in another matatu, whose floor was so rusted I could see the tarmac through the floor as I went to work.
Traffic Base Commander
On another occasion, my Mama Watoto had her dress torn as she alighted from yet another contraption held together by rust and the grace of God. When she complained, the tout told her she had boarded with her dress torn.
I was informed of the incident and called the then Traffic Base Commander. The vehicle was promptly impounded. The tout fled, and for the next few days, I looked for the chap. I was keen to hear how he knew that my wife leaves my house in torn dresses. Eventually, he left town, never to return. I still plan to have that conversation with him, whenever we shall meet. It will not be a pleasant one.
Fast-forward to 2018, 24 years later, we are caught in a time warp. Little has changed, save for the fact that the creaking of public transport vehicles is complimented by the creaking of my own bones. It would make for a nice little orchestra but I have my car now. Never mind that it looks like a mountain goat.
The crackdown on matatus is a godsend.
Have a rust-free week, folks! The writer is Special Projects editor, People Daily