LIFE BY LOUIS: The drama of taking a matatu to Matimbei

Monday April 15 2019

When you finally land in my village, you will be suffering from a condition which is equivalent to a severe jetlag. ILLUSTRATION| IGAH


Although Matimbei is barely 70km from Nairobi, you need to start the journey at dawn.

Sometimes it feels like one is travelling to Malaba, which is hundreds of kilometres away.

The first part of the journey is the easiest one.

The only hurdle is tracing your way to our matatu terminus that is located along Race Course Road.

This is the part of town where ownership of your personal property like a phone or wallet is likely to change without any contractual agreement.

I learned to mitigate this risk while in college. Even though I did not have much to lose those days, the little I had at stake was precious to me.



We used to get our student allowance at the beginning of the semester.

To ensure that you arrived at the college hostels with your allowance intact, you had to tuck in your wallet into the deep recesses of your body and out of reach of pick pockets.

Fast forward, when I am navigating the city towards the terminus that we gladly refer to as Kaka, my wallet and phone are always tucked into small pockets sewn into the inner sections of my boxers and vests.

My travel backpack is also always firmly strapped across my chest like a parachute.

Anyone attempting to wriggle it from my firm grip will have to perform an open heart surgery on me.

Just like I do when I am passing through customs at the airport, I normally line up the top of the bag with a dirty towel, used socks and heavily stained sportswear. 

If anyone snatches my bag thinking it has a laptop and other valuables, they will either give up and return it, or face a painful death via asphyxiation.

Resetting back to regular mode after finally entering the matatu is like a UN-backed disarmament exercise in Afghanistan.


The phone emerges from the deep pocket of the boxers and it always feels a bit warm.

The wallet is retrieved from a secret bunker in the armpit region. It definitely gets crumpled and the notes are a bit moist from the sweat and have the deep musky smell of adrenaline.

I always carry a book to read during a long journey, but the environment in our home-bound matatu is not conducive.

Everyone seems to know one another and before we reach Muthaiga, there is an animated discussion on the Kenyan politics, drought, maize prices and the standard gauge railway.

Someone produces a newspaper which is unpacked and everyone gets a page.

Barely five minutes into reading, everyone is back to the plenary with deeper analysis of the unfolding political alliances, the handshake and the latest corruption scandals.

The discussions here would rival a popular breakfast show in the local television channels.

Sometimes, the driver gets engrossed in the discussion because he has the benefit of having participated in similar discussions throughout his career.

He will slow down and gesticulate vigorously, sometimes acting as the debate moderator.

Thanks to these discussions, the first part of the journey from the city to the first stopover in a town called Githunguri seems shorter.


It is the last phase of the journey to my village that is a nightmare. The matatus depart in intervals of two hours if you are lucky to be travelling on a market day.

On non-market days, the wait for the matatu to fill up is indefinite and torturous.

The first passenger arrives and waits for about an hour before the second passenger shows up.

As soon as the second passenger gets in, the first passenger who is now already tired and hungry excuses themselves and disappear into the alleys.

When a third passenger shows up, the second passenger disappears and the first passenger comes back.

This positive displacement goes on until the matatu fills up which is many hours later.

The matatu will not leave the town before it passes through several designated stopovers.

The first stop is barely ten metres away from the terminus where we are driven into a petrol station for a refill.

You wonder why the driver did not do this critical task before departure time.

The visit to the petrol station is not complete before the tyres are checked for pressure and the radiator coolant is added.

There is always something to be checked in the engine that necessitates half the passengers to alight, further delaying the journey by 30 minutes.

After the petrol station the matatu makes a few other stop over at the hardware and animal feeds shops picking farm inputs that belong to some of the passengers already inside.

Just before the assistant driver pushes some water pipes and roofing sheets under the seats, he orders all of you to lift up your legs.

The response is almost reflex, failure to which you may get your feet amputated.

The journey finally begins, and the discussions here are more intense but more localised.

A fellow passenger will greet you and ask you a bit loudly how life in Nairobi is unfolding.

The matatu goes silent and all attention turns to you, they all expect a detailed feedback from you about the state of the nation.

When you finally land in my village, you will be suffering from a condition which is equivalent to a severe jetlag.


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