It is typical for bed bug exterminators to post advertisements in matatus looking for clients, subtly acknowledging that these customers are most likely to have carried their guests with them into the very commute.
Indeed, should bed bugs survive spirited efforts by Nairobians to fumigate them—especially whenever one of these blood-sucking insects is spotted at our homes—they will have the Nairobi Matatus to thank for.
Dousing your house with the strongest of fumigants has always been an exercise in futility as long as the same is not being done in Matatus.
Whether or not your pockets allow you to avoid Nairobi’s infamous matatus, the fact that six in every ten people you meet will probably have used one means you probably have brushed past one or two bed bugs in the streets.
A sign of poverty
Anyway, it is not the insects I was thinking about when I got into a Matatu on this Monday morning, it was the fact that we had all agreed as a society to such low standards for our busy commutes to generate billions in the capital.
Infestation by bed bugs, my mother used to tell me, is a sign of poverty. But somehow having escaped abject poverty the bugs seem to cling, maybe as a reminder that it is just paycheck away. Like if I continue to sleep and blame traffic for my lateness and the fire me or just for my tardiness as employees trying to survive tough times are finding costs they can do without.
Damn, thinking about poverty on a Monday morning could not be inspiring enough to help me get through the long week. I felt maybe it could even show on my anxious Nairobi face.
Then, someone shouted my name as if recognizing the look or its owner, breaking my reverie. It was one of my drinking buddies, suspecting my contorted face was a bad hangover and called on me to join him hoping to cheer me up with narratives of how he did not lose his way home the last time we met.
He was sitting at the front in one of those look-at-me seats that are common in the third class of the SGR. I told him I don’t like sitting there. It feels awkward.
“But there are no seats at the back,” he insisted.
Of course there were empty seats. What he meant is that at least one of the pair of seats had an occupant and we had no chance of sitting next to each other.
Addicted to lonely matatu rides
But like typical Nairobi commuters, I somehow prefer to go through the hours of jerking inertia in lonely contemplation. Is it not strange how no one will ever get into a matatu and sit next to a stranger. They will take the will skip seats and fill one side of the entire isle before late comers are forced to sit next to them.
Even those young men who like harassing women with cat-calls when they are in groups will avoid sitting next to an extremely hot girl. Mob psychology and alcohol are the only stuff that helps boys to grow balls.
When I got to the back, I noticed that the back seat was missing, damaged by age and poor maintenance typical of matatus. My grumbling desire for lonely thought was not as rewarding as I had anticipated, and beating a retreat to my drunk friend was out of question.
The tout–busy looking for customers he had no intention of converting into clients– was unbothered.
Two places to the back, there were two empty seats on both sides of the matatu, both on the side of the aisle. The red covers on the rest of the seats were dirty and torn.
After some time, all the seats were occupied save for the ones at the back that were badly damaged. I thought the conductor would tell the driver to leave for town because clearly these were not fit for a paying customers.
But yeye ni nani? He didn’t, and moments later, the victim, a young woman in dressy casual walked in. She shot a quick glance at the back, hesitated for a second and then walked on to the back. I expected something to happen, a protest, disgust for being made to sit in a gaping hole of welded metal on a rickety matatu but none came. In fact four other passengers joined her!
It reminded me of the last time I sat in a wet seat in Matatu, an indicator of having been washed, was when Double M Matatus still believed that commuters could be clients. But with the wide ray of choices somehow we are collectively being forced to accept lower and lower standards because presently all our decisions are based on price.
With the cost of diesel going up, driving to work or taking an Uber can be expensive.
The alternative for many would be safe and decent public transport. But who wants to save Ksh600 in fuel and parking fees to sit in a fast-driven bus, the seat swinging beneath them, and collecting bed bugs while at it?
It is uncommon nowadays for touts to be foul-mouthed. In fact, a lot of matatu have posters screaming: “Incase of complaints or compliments call…” However, any grumbles about poor services are still met with, “Ungenunua gari yako, aise.”
Interestingly, even the passengers will join the lynch mob, wondering if you have just landed from Mars or you just being a cool kid. Yeah, You better go and kill that bed bug in the Matatu as well.
Nonetheless, when the conductor came to collect his fare, I made sure to reminded him to have that seat fixed. He just mumbled incoherently and went on stuffing banknotes between his fingers. And I bet he cursed under his breath and said inwardly “Ungenunua gari yako, aise.”