Ever seen a sticker in a Matatu that reads: ‘Lipa Bila Fujo, Hii Kazi Ngumu’? Take the six words seriously. They capture the highs and lows in the daily life of a bus conductor with great clarity.
If you ever thought your work at the office or business is a difficult one and that somehow entitles you to royal treatment in a Matatu - you have been wrong. Other people have it just as hard, if not worse. For years, I’ve been quick to engage conductors in needless arguments on my daily commute to town.
It seems like fun, to be a conductor. That fast lifestyle that oozes the ‘bad boy’ vibe is not necessarily furious, or flashy. It’s just a façade, a game of mirrors masked by trendy outfits, pimped autos, insane graffiti, and booming music. There are more lows than highs.
Many a times, I’ve been tempted to try some swinging tricks on the door of a moving Matatu. It seems cool. That’s not all. I’ve always loved money. Dear Lord, the money in this gig! Money literally flows through your hands, from dawn to dusk. You spend the entire day handling wands of money - what’s cooler than that?!
It sure beats a cashier gig in a bank, or teaching - the iconic tweed jacket with elbow patches notwithstanding. These are the two most loved occupations in my family. Across generations, everyone is either one or the other.
As a kid, I’d say that I wanted to be a driver. At the time, the Meru - Nairobi route was dominated by the iconic Peugeot 504 station wagon, quite the speed demons. As I grew up, Khat became an export product and synonymous with speeding pick-up trucks.
Life took me on a different path. The closest I can live my childhood dream is to ride in a Matatu. For someone yet to own their own car, riding in a public service vehicle (PSV) comes free of social inhibitions of hitching a life in someone’s car. Plus, there’s so much to love about the vibrant Matatu culture, especially in Nairobi.
The only stain on that culture is the conductor part.
Like other occupations, it’s dotted with bad apples. I’ve seen good, upstanding, and pleasant conductors. I’ve also met hideous, despicable, and intolerable human beings working as conductors. This is often a total stranger, but - packs just enough influence to either make or ruin your day!
I recently got a chance to live a few hours as a ‘Con-Cordi’.
Since I moved back to the city last December, I’ve become a weekend regular on a specific, heavily pimped 14-seater van on the Meru-Nairobi route. Just like your favourite local, sticking to one Matatu has a load of benefits.
One, you can always pay later if the funds are low. Two, you get the best seats. Three, you can send or receive small parcels at zero cost!
Early Thursday afternoon, I get a call from the driver. He asks if I’d be willing to stand in for the conductor on the trip back to Nairobi. It’s a busy day. Scores of boarding schools are closing - also happens to be the eve of a Public Holiday, The Idd Ul Fitr on Friday 21st April.
The regular conductor was Islamic, and needed the day off to be with family. Plus, I’d be paid something for my troubles.
I was apprehensive, naturally. I’ve never really worked a day as a conductor. Hey, that route is peppered with hundreds of minuscule stages and bus stages - will I know where to drop a passenger? We do not have a metric for fare payments on the route!
The driver says not to worry, I’ll assist you with the fare, and the bus stops. Plus, the typical passenger know what they usually pay on a specific route. My role is to give a bargaining point.
Like, this moment at the Embu terminus:
Passenger: Naenda Kenol? How much?
Con-Cordi (I’m new, so I’d have to guess): Ah, that will be 500 bob.
Passenger (Flinching): Aiiii - Hapo sini 300 bwana?
Con-Cordi (Now, I have an idea): Ah, ongeza 50 bob twende. Masaa ni mbaya!
Simple, right? Akili mtu wangu.
Thankfully, this was the van’s return trip. The crew had attained their daily target already. That allowed some marginal room for error.
The driver further shrugs off my tension with a summarized pep talk: “Wewe ni Msee wa Kanairo, watu ya Ushago hawatakushinda….”
Roughly: You are a city chap, you’ll be fine handling rural chaps.
A serious Con-Cordi has to look like a Con-Cordi. Forget the Michuki-era blue uniforms and name tags. Most Matatu crews hardly use them, unless it’s the proper shuttle companies. The pick-and-drop Matatus had the law unto themselves.
Be neat, and wear clean clothes. You’ll be squeezing and leaning over people’s heads, so do not reek of sweat if you can help it. But I was nervous, and breaking out in small sweats - so I was liberal with my cologne. Brush your teeth, check.
Have a baseball cap, maybe. I have shoulder-length dreadlocks. Even better. Dreadlocks come with some degree of street cred - the streets have to embrace you. Next is the shoes, pick sport shoes for their versatility. At the very least, get a pair of the insufferable Safari Boots.
Oh, pair it all with denim pants. Tight pockets come in handy.
The Matatu culture is defined by the language spoken, changes with region. In Nairobi, the lingua is different from lingua spoken in The Rift, or The Coast. It takes a career lifetime to absorb and live it. I had to make do with a quick crash course. We focused on the five most used phrases on the Meru - Nairobi route.
Police, becomes ‘Bosi-bori’.
NTSA, becomes ‘Nte-sa’.
The other phrases are currency-based. Basically, revert the Swahili word for a currency - speak it backwards. For instance: Kumi, becomes ‘Mi-ku’, Mia, becomes ‘Ami’ or, say, One Thousand becomes ‘Thao Jamo’….
I was good to go. We hit the ground running.
There’s a structural element in a Matatu van that we both forgot. There’s an irksome, solid partition between the passenger cabin and the driver’s cabin. In the context of rowdy students singing along to the blaring music - there was no way to talk to the driver once we got rolling.
The thuggery begins, too…
Suddenly, my own sins started haunting me. Karma is a thing. Is it not a mystery how a party gang easily spends thousands on over-priced drinks in a pub - yet start fighting a hapless Con-Cordi over some minor Ksh50 change?
I had done it numerous times. Now, I was on the receiving end of the buffoonery.
I was half-way booked with students, to Nairobi. The rear half of the van was a party scene - and, I could not vouch for their sobriety. Thankfully, they had paid before we flagged off.
After Embu, a burly guy with a scruffy beard and a stale beer breath boarded. He took a seat directly behind the driver’s seat, and nods off to sleep. An hour into the ride, dude startles awake, turns to me, and screams:
“Oyaa! Nipe hio change yangu nashuka hapo next”. (Hey, I need my change back, getting off soon).
It’s all in a day’s work, except that this guy had not paid anything. I had been warned of the classic ‘Problem Passenger’. The route has a special word for it: ‘Boribo’, a derivative of the English word Bully.
Well, he kicked up such a ruckus that I had to bang on the roof for help. The driver chose a deserted spot on the highway, turned off the engine and disembarked - with a shining machete! The scene ending was such an anti-climax, though. The bully immediately fished out a soiled Ksh1000 note from the depths of his pants.
But, still, we have to maintain a certain street cred, the streets are brutal. We left him at the spot, pitifully stranded.
To Follow: How I made colossal sums, and lost money on the Matatu route….