Game of cards


Image by Nina Stock from Pixabay

The Matatu industry folks are the masters of the game of cards. They are smart. They are quick, very resilient and sometimes, even cunning. Now here’s the thing about them, they know for a fact that you need them. But they also know when to lure you into their game when need be.

You get to the matatu stage at 6 or 7 am in the morning, and the stage is already crowded with all manner of people. The matatus are scarce and with scarcity, comes one other thing, MONEY. At this time, the conductors won’t even look you in your eyes. The moment the matatu stops at the stage, they say what they need to say, without blinking their eyes. “Tao express, 100” and because the mwananchi is desperate to get to work early or else their salary will be sliced, they might as well just board the matatu as is. You will see some reluctant faces, some trying to whisper to the conductor, in a desperate attempt to get him to be more reasonable with the price. But this is not ‘the right talking’ moment. More times than not, the conductors are not interested in hearing your sad tone that early in the morning. So, they allow in who can afford it. The rest wait until the next humane conductor stops.

On other mornings, the matatus are so scarce, everyone is scrambling into the matatu like a tag of war. Some go further by jumping in through the window, and by the time everyone is settled down, we all need a minute to straighten our shirts and skirts and take a breath. I know, the struggle is real!

At this point, the matatu folks know very well what they are doing. There are totally no compromises, no humanity at this point. On other mornings, they will listen to your desperate bargain, ask you to board and when the time to pay your fare comes, they tell you, ‘Don’t you know it is rush hour?!’ My friend, if you had given the conductor more than the fare you bargained, best believe you will not get the change you expected or not get any change entirely. And because this money was budgeted, you try to reason with him, ‘Tuliongea’ or ‘Lakini ulikubali’ but your attempt will not be fruitful. So you attempt using your aggressive, firm tone but you know what? That doesn’t scare them either. In the end, you get tired and keep quiet or they ask you to alight before your actual destination. But do you know which the most annoying scenario is? You talk to the conductor and agree on the fare. You board the matatu, and next two stages ahead, the conductor you talked to alights. He wasn’t even the one in charge and now the next one who comes in doesn’t have time to listen to your blame story.

Darwin’s theory of ‘survival is for the fittest’ makes sense in so many ways. Like in this case, we are all desperate Kenyans, barely making ends meet. The economy is rough on everyone. But who suffers the most? The middle and lower class of the society. Barely anyone wants to be the next Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi. We are all hungry. We are all hustlers. So it really isn’t ‘their’ fault to spike the fare prices in an unreasonable manner when they are just trying to survive too right? At least that’s how some think.

I mean, how many times have you boarded a matatu during morning or evening rush, or during the rain season or holiday season or a matatu strike, and you are told 100 bob every stage. EVERY. SINGLE. STAGE. That means it doesn’t matter if my stage is fifteen minutes away or one hour away, we are all paying the same.

The ones who get it the roughest are the visitors from other parts of the country or abroad especially during the holiday season. Funny thing, it is always very easy to spot a visitor because oblivion and confusion is always on their faces. They will constantly remind the conductor to drop them at their stage, keenly staring at the road ahead. Or the instances where we have teachers’ conferences here in Mombasa and suddenly the prices are doubled for every person, whether a local or a visitor. It is as though the teachers are coming with some funds to share with the community over here. I mean, what’s even the explanation for such manipulation?

Now flip the coin, to during the non-rush hours like between 10:00 a.m. to 3 p.m., you will see totally different people. Same faces, just different behaviour. As soon as they see you coming towards the stage, the conductor will come for you. Sometimes, the driver even reverses his car to where you are. In another second, there are three or four other conductors, all trying to convince you into their matatu. One will try holding your hand, another will tell you their matatu is about to leave; only two people remaining before it fills up (by two they actually mean five or seven people), another will offer you a way lower fare price. If you came to the stage with a bodaboda, they will rush to pay off the bodaboda guy so you are left with no choice but board their matatu. They will plead with you. They will remind you that ‘you are our daily customer’. Another will tell you the driver is calling you or your friend is in their matatu. They will fight for you. If you have low self-esteem, they could actually make you feel that you matter. And yes, you definitely do because their survival game is affected by your coins. Yet, they could crash that same self-esteem they built moments ago by selling you off to another conductor for only 20 bob 😀

Their faces turn from 0 to 100 real quick. They know how to navigate around the police system. They know when to be aggressive. When to be swift. When to be stern. When to be greedy; overloading the matatu with passengers until people are suffocating. When to be friendly. When to be kind. When to be empathetic. Of course this is not how it is with all of them. Some are more understanding of the struggle fellow Kenyans are in too and some are friendly and reasonable regardless of the time. However, most times than not, they are just playing their cards.

Funny thing is, most Kenyans with white collar jobs perceive the matatu industry to be of a lower grade; for the illiterate, poor, uncivilized people. However, the money that matatu drivers and conductors make is way more than what an average Kenyan earns in a white collar job. How they use the money is a different story but we’ve had students educate themselves throughout college using the money earned being a matatu conductor/driver.

So next time you want to pity them or underestimate them, think twice. You are probably being played more than you realize it.


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