Matatu Musings: Why a mzungu refused to pay Kes50 fare

4 minutes

I couldn’t believe I had fallen for this old trick once again. Immediately I saw the conductor holding banknotes only, I knew I had been duped. Fare was Kes100, not Kes80 as I had been told by the manamba (some kind of a roving tout) when I was getting into the Matatu.

When the conductor got to me, I took out a Kes100 note and handed it to him half-expecting to be given change of Kes20. Instead the guy moved on to the next passenger.

“But you guys said the fare was Kes20,” I was angry. 

The conductor just stared at me blankly. I hoped to hear murmurs of approval around me to rise above the blare of Old School Hip Hop beats.

I silently cursed myself for being such an easy pawn. This was like the thousandth time these manambas were playing me. Only this time, they were a little smarter.

When I got to the stage in the morning at around 9am, I found two matatus. Around them were several touts whose cackles, as they tried to win over passengers, competed with the honks of matatus.

The Matatu in front, flashier and louder, should have been the easy choice because it was nearly full. I knew it was more expensive than the one behind for two reasons. 

A matatu that is nearly full charges more than one that does not have passengers. Also, flashier Matatus, known as Nganya, with massive screens bolted behind the seats tend to charge more than the rundown old matatus.

The Matatu behind it was plain and barely had passengers.

You also know a Matatu is going to extract more from you when the manamba doesn’t reveal the fare. They will say, “Tao wanne, tao wanne!”

If the fare they are charging is ‘reasonable’ they may say something like, “Tao fifty, Tao fifty!”

The Manambas for the Mat in front did not disclose their fare.

The Matatu behind charged Kes50, which I knew would change to around Kes80 once they had positioned enough passengers on the window seats to create the impression of being full. Those who got in earlier would pay Kes50 while those that came later would pay Kes50.

I was in a hurry, but also didn’t want to lose out on a good deal. So, almost shouting, I asked the manamba of the flashier Mat what he was charging. He told me Kes80.

The tout for the Mat behind overheard him and shouted back: “Usilipe gari Mia.”

“Mwambie wewe ndio uko na gari,” another tout for the flashy Mat told his friend. That got me. The only person with the accurate fare is the conductor that will go with Matatu, not the Manamba that will be left behind. 

“Usilipe Mia moja. Wee panda alafu utaona ikiwa Mia moja,” the one for the Mat behind went on.

Confused, I opted to buy time at the stage. Just then someone called and asked me to urgently meet him in the CBD in an hour. Without thinking, I hoped into the first Matatu to be served yet another dose of injustice by a cruel society.

There was just everything wrong with how these guys hoodwinked me. They lied to me and many others, but you know, Kenyans like minding their businesses.

The false advertisement is not unique to the Matatu industry. How many times have politicians misled us into electing them by serving us with lofty only to give us something different when they get into power?

Do we complain? No.

Which reminded me of a time when an American friend and I took a matatu together. She had been in Kenya for over two years and spoke fluent Swahili. She didn’t feel that was enough, she wanted to speak Sheng like the rest of us.

Guys were always ambushed with her Swahili. I remember a day when I was with her in my neighbourhood. A friend of mine said, “Buda, hii nipatie.”

She shot back angrily: “Mimi sio ng’ombe.”

On this day, the manamba said the matatu was Kes30, but when we got into the matatu the conductor was charging Kes50. My friend refused to pay. I was rather embarrassed that I was walking around with a mzungu who spoke Swahili and refused to pay Kes50.

I took out a Kes100 note and paid for both of us. She looked at me incredulously. “Unalipa? Shauri yako,” she said.

When we had gotten off, I asked her why she refused to pay only Kes20 extra. She said if you continue doing that, the matatu guys will never change.

Was she trying to be the typical Mzungu who wanted to be a saviour in a poor African country?

I recently read a story in The Guardian newspaper where she sued for a judicial review to compel Oxford University to overturn the university’s policy on investigating complaints of rape and sexual assault. She did her Master’s at Oxford.

I think she was just against injustice everywhere.

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