The third week of January has turned out to be a trifle too hot for my liking. With temperatures soaring from “normal” to over 28 degrees Celsius, I have become averse to strolling on pavements or patiently waiting for matatus to come along. Matatus are my main mode of transportation everywhere. From Kampala to Mukono, From Kireka to Muyenga, Ntinda to Luzira; literally everywhere, I hop onto them praying that the people that man them take me to wherever I am going safely and in a swift manner. For the uninitiated, matatus are 14-seater vans that ply all major routes in Uganda. They are the face of the public transportation system in this hot,dry,crowded city of Kampala. Matatus are referred to as “taxis” by the common folk. Many of them are in dangerous mechanical condition with rickety chairs, cracked windows and torn leather seats. In deplorable condition, they do not even provide the luxury of air conditioning in these hot climes.
They are chaperoned by drivers who usually do not have driving licenses (thus steering vehicles on the roads illegally and we still jump onto matatus anyway! 🙂 ) and touts(who we call conductors) who are widely known for being vile, rude, uncouth, uncultured, vulgar and cheats. Many a time, these conductors do not take baths and it is evident by the stench that emanates from their clothes. Their bodies reek of old,dried sweat that has gone stale. And they wave their hands in the general direction of the route the taxi is taking as they yell loudly for passengers to get on board their vehicle. Occasionally, because the underarms of their shirts are torn, you will catch glimpses of unshaven, bushy armpits. Not a pleasant sight I tell you!
During the morning and evening rush hours, you will find tens of people huddled at matatu stages waiting for a matatu to come along. Usually, the passengers are in a rush to get to work early(in the mornings) or to get home before dark(in the evenings). So, as soon as a half-empty matatu draws up, all of them will forget their manners(if they had any anyway) and push, shove, and elbow other people’s ribs while clamoring for the few available seats in the vehicle. If you are fortunate enough, you will get into the taxi without scratches but if you’re in a spate of bad luck, you will enter the taxi with bruises and sharp nagging pain. Like any other East African, I have had my fair share of memorable(both good and bad) experiences in matatus and run-ins with “conductor embarrassment”.
One morning, as I stood patiently waiting at the Shell Kireka matatu stage waiting for an empty matatu to drive up, I had an interesting encounter with the touts. I was all dressed up, ready for work. In a pink dress, well polished black heels, sleek shiny black hair, a dash of lipstick on my lips, and my handbag clasped in my left-hand, I had put in considerable effort to look very presentable(more than I usually do-scratch that, I rarely dress up. It’s exhausting for me!). So I stood by the roadside, very proud of myself for making the extra effort to look dashing that day. And then a nitwit driver and conductor of a taxi heading to the New Taxi Park made their way in my direction. The driver saw me and the other passengers through the cracked windshield of his run-down taxi as he drove towards where we were standing. However, when he got within thirty meters of us, he suddenly accelerated his vehicle. In a mad dash to get out of the way of the dazed driver and his equally errant taxi, I jumped sideways, twisted my right ankle and lost my balance(I was in heels!). I landed face forward into a deep, muddy pothole littered with scraps of polythene bags and green algae. A kind gentleman who had watched the fracas unfold pulled me up and helped me out of the pothole. My dress, bag, hair were dripping wet with disgustingly dirty water. You can imagine my horror. I was livid. Shaking and trembling with anger, I pointed my finger at the conductor and driver who had now parked the vehicle besides us and castigated them for being irresponsible and putting the lives of the people at the matatu stage at risk. The driver didn’t seem to discern that he’d done any wrong. The conductor started lambasting me and the other bystanders for being idle and disorderly. In his abuse, he said that “normal” people shouldn’t be just standing by the roadside as if they had nothing to do. The irony is that if we weren’t at the roadside, they would not have any business. A few other people who had scrambled for dear life empathized with me and urged me not to argue with the “fools”(the driver and his sidekick-the conductor). Mad, but having nothing to do, I flagged down a boda-boda and hopped onto it and took a ride back home to go take a shower and change so I wouldn’t be very late for work. It bothered me how the two men failed to see that they’d not only wronged me but the other bystanders at the matatu stage as well. Maybe it is true what they say; all conductors are cut from the same cloth(a very bad cloth)!
More recently, a few days ago, I boarded a matatu from the mango tree matatu stage at Spear Motors that was heading to Ntinda. Cramped in at the back of the taxi, I could hardly breathe. Usually, a matatu is supposed to only have 14 passengers on board. On this morning however, the conductor acted as if he was trying to set the Guinness World Record for most overstuffed taxi in the world. In a row of seats which is supposed to hold 3 people, he squeezed in 5. So the first two rows from the taxi door had 11 people(10 passengers and the conductor with his head touching the vehicle roof and his dirt brown trousers turned towards the back of the taxi). His derriere was in our faces. 19 passengers in total(including the conductor and driver), we made for a pitiful sight. Hunched together within the metallic environs of the matatu, we looked like potatoes squashed into a sack. Despite the fact that it was early in the morning, it was evident that many of the passengers had neither showered nor brushed their teeth. One in particular constantly rubbed his pale, scaly, grazed skin against my face as he stretched. His eyes were bloodshot and he reeked of a strong potent gin. He had clearly had a long night. When he yawned, a mist of smelly air rose up into the air. Being morning rush hour, the driver decided to hasten our journey and he promptly ignited the engine and we set off. As anyone who has ever lived in Kampala knows, the stretch of road from Spear Motors to Ntinda is one of the most treacherous. It has fish-pond size potholes, anthill size humps and the road is as narrow as the proverbial road to heaven(You get my point!). The clanging of the taxi against thick, coarse, uneven gravel makes for a bumpy uncomfortable ride. The story was no different on this day. Puffs of dust wafted into the taxi and the leather chairs on which we sat were caked with a brown layering of dust; newly blown in dust and old dust that had not been brushed out of the taxi. I have been struggling with rhinitis for years. Much to my chagrin, I was now battling with a plume of dust making its way onto the backseat. The windows had a faulty lock system so I couldn’t open them. My nose became runny, my eyes turned red and I contemplated getting out of the vehicle. However, I reasoned that I could not easily get another mode of transportation in the Stretcher-Ntinda area to get me swiftly to work. So, I decided to hang in there for the last few hundred meters of the journey. When we got to Capital Shoppers City, the driver, in an error of judgment swerved the taxi to avoid a speeding motor cyclist. In his bid to steer us to safety, he ended up practically cruising us over the large humps in that vicinity. The conductor lost his balance and landed on the laps of a rather plump woman donned in a kitenge dress with a maroon wig. She slapped him out of his reverie and confusion. As he scampered to get up, he let out a loud shrill fart. Boy oh boy! You should have seen the people whose faces were directly in front of his bottom. A lady, choking on the torrid smell, ducked her head under her chair. The passengers in the two front rows who had been squeezed in like lumps of clay, were now struggling to breathe. The smell was like that of rotting cabbage. A gentleman let out a loud gasp as he pulled his window clutch open to let in a stream of fresh air. The fart was like a dangerous chemical weapon. It made its way to the back of the taxi where I was sitting. I started to sneeze and my nose became itchy. Fed up with the torment we had so far endured, in a voice of unison, all the passengers asked the driver to park by the roadside.We were up to our necks with the horrible treatment by the matatu touts. Many of the passengers refused to pay the conductor his fare and walked off jeering. He hung his head low in shame. We alighted out of the taxi and left the “fart master” and his equally ridiculous driver perplexed by our decision to leave their vehicle. I decided that I would walk the rest of the way to Ntinda Trading Centre. I would rather be late for work than die from inhalation of poisonous “fart gases.” I do not want my eulogy to read; ” she died from fart gas suffocation in a matatu.”
I could tell you a million and one stories about my endless matatu adventures. Today however, I will leave you with just a nugget of wisdom for your matatu journeys(if and when you choose to use a matatu):
Always have loose change to give the conductor. Touts love to cheat people especially vulnerable looking ones. And if you ever find yourself in a verbal fight with touts, do not give them the benefit of your reply. They will never understand the point you are trying to put across.
Until next time, safe travels and enjoy your matatu rides!