Kenya Bus Safari
by John Marshall
(Orange CA, USA)
I stepped out of the plush modern European restaurant in Nairobi’s Koinange Street and wondered how I was going to get to Thika. It is about 40kms north and I had arranged with my Kenya friend in Rucu to pick me up at the Blue Posts Hotel.
The obvious way was to get a city taxi to the rural taxi or matatu station and to take a Peugeot matatu from there.
I planned to do this but, as I was doing up my shoelace on the steps of the huge market building, I got talking to a man and casually asked him how he would go to Thika. He asked his friend and as so often happens there was not 100% agreement. “You could go by bus. . “ and that convinced me for some reason and off I went.
The first bus I took from those same steps landed me up at the Kenya Bus Service (KBS) Station. There were about one hundred buses there (well, that is what it seemed like) and they are unlike English buses in two immediately noticeable respects: there is no colour scheme and there was Kenya rap music blaring from each one. All buses are decorated in bright colours and amidst all the decoration there will be the owner’s name if it is private and the route taken by that bus.
Much more interesting are the slogans. As you start filing your way through the thronging crowd, standing, sitting, chatting, laughing and generally passing the time you notice them and since there are no signs saying where groups of buses are going, Kenyans know it is only a matter of time before any European, unless a missionary or a resident, has to ask someone which bus to take. But I have been to Kenya quite often and I was determined to get as far as I could before asking.
I got away from buses to Machakos, crossed to the next line where I did actually notice the name Thika in a number of bus windows. The noise started to crescendo. I got to the steps of a bus and then asked “Em... Thika?” “Yes,” came the reply. I was just about to mount when I felt an arm on mine. “Better you take this one” and I was led past two buses and shown into a third. “Em. . . ticket? This man nodded “No!” It is always interesting how far you can get with very little language.
Entering the bus was like entering an empty disco. The music was lively and struck a chord but quite deafening. Yet the two or three people inside – the early ones – were fast asleep. It was like a silent call both to enjoy the atmosphere and to relax into it. Not for long! Apart from the music which a lady at the front was now beginning to sway backwards and forwards to there was the noise of the engine being constantly revved up.
Why? Well, it is a good way to make people realize that departure is imminent. It is not obvious in any other way that this is one of the next few buses to leave.
The noise outside the bus was as deafening as inside and so there was no point in shouting and besides it would destroy the atmosphere. “Don’t push me!” I read on a dwarfed three wheeler taxi. “Sugar Daddy!” on one bus and more philosophical “God gives, MATCO builds!” (Murang’a Automobile Transport Co) The same company owned another bus nearby proclaiming “The Original Father from MATCO”.
People now started boarding. They were mostly teenage street-sellers and at this point I started to take note of what they were selling, on the corner of my Daily Nation. I was offered during the next fifteen minutes, by about fifty sellers, watches, calculators, wallets, mandazi, biscuits, padlocks and keys, sweets, clothes pegs, nuts, chains – some suitable for the neck and others for the ankles – scissors, cigarette lighters, newspapers, headscarves, handkerchiefs and whistles. . . in that order!
I found myself unwilling to buy anything: I just wanted to be left alone. I wondered if these teens sold much and if they did what the consequences were. Did they drop out of school? How many were drifting to Nairobi from the rural areas to take up this occupation?
The bus suddenly started to reverse from its bay. By now it was more than full! No panic! It was just that it was not clear who was coming on the journey and who was intent on getting off. The music got even louder and the lady at the front was joining in with it. Gradually the sellers backed off hoping for a last sale and showing yards of items covering the whole areas of their shirts and trousers down to their knees. I breathed a sigh of relief. At last we were off!
Well not for more than 100 yards because that is where the filling station is! Bus drivers do two things at these, both for the same reason. They fill the tank of course with as much as they can squeeze in and they appear to fill the tyres with as much air as they can squeeze in, too! As the journey progresses, air and petrol tend to be lost. Engine oil is never checked as far as I can observe. I only realized about the air gradually.
My mind was elsewhere when I noticed four men looking anxiously at the tyre pressure gauge and then equally anxiously at the tyre they were filling. Their hands appeared to be going to their ears or was it their eyes in anticipation of something. No wonder the buses are so cheap.
With a lot of double declutching, gear changing, a fair amount of brute force, a lot of revving, no doubt a prayer or two, clouds of black smoke, we finally began to judder forward and to jerk our way out into the street. It was getting rather exciting. Still the music was deafening but not monotonous. Lots of changing rhythyms. When a bus really gets going you have the feeling that it is getting faster and faster and that the driver is having difficulty reining it in, perhaps trying to impress his clients. It was difficult to focus on shop fronts as we rocketed through the dangerously narrow River Road and on to the roundabout. I did notice “Baskali Centre” and rows of bicycles. Then I could almost touch the van heralding “Victory Bakers: we lead others follow.” The bus doesn’t go through any of the smarter parts of town, though smart is a relative term anyway in Kenya, but amidst the shop fronts you notice strange juxtapositions “Kens Metal Industries”, “Mwangi’s Garage”, “Kenya Airways -the Pride of Africa!”, K.W. Stores”, “Laser Vision”.
Outside the “Muslim Women Hall” we screech to an unexpected halt. All hell breaks loose. We were completely full but a whole lot more people wanted to get on and very, very few wanted to get off. The conductor, quite indistinguishable at first from other passengers, started to communicate with the driver in complex whistles.
This unfolded as the journey continued. There is a whistle for “Someone wants to get off!”, another for “Look at the next stop, there are more customers!” “Away you go!”, “Hang on! He hasn’t fixed his luggage on the roof yet!” and, of course, the most important one for this now heavily-overladen bus “Danger! Police check ahead!”
Once out on to the duel carriage way, I thought the interest in the journey would lessen. A government-sponsored sign warned “Where are you rushing? Better late than never!”
My eyes alighted on a clearly undecorated notice, precisely behind the driver’s head “No victory is ever easy. Nothing can be solved by mere luck. Brain and hard work together solve the problem.” Then the music suddenly stopped and we were plunged into the middle of what turned out to be a long speech by the President, in English.
Nobody took the slightest notice which was heartening and after five minutes we were back into the world of Kenyan rap. Seeing familiar landmarks was encouraging; we were nearly at my destination. But would there still be a twist?
Well the bus almost immediately pulled up and we were asked in Kikuyu to get off if we wanted the following towns. Four were mentioned but not Thika. I too was asked to get off and we were soon bombing along again in a different, very overcrowded bus. About fifteen people were standing.
A new whistle from nowhere rent the air and fifteen heads simultaneously ducked as we sailed through a police check point. They must have been rehearsed! Three minutes later I was deposited with some ceremony and pride alone beside the dual carriageway, a mere 50 yards from the Blue Posts Hotel. Total silence.
I had had a “breath of Kenyan Air” worth far more than the 13 Kenyan shilling bus fare, which I had coughed up somewhere along the journey, in response to one of the many whistles. And to think, I nearly took a matatu!