Quite an experience aboard the “Beast” of Ongata Rongai

Thursday August 20 2015

After hearing fantastic tales about “the best

After hearing fantastic tales about “the best matatu on the Ongata Rongai route” Brian Cliff decided to check it out. The death of former Transport Minister John Michuki has led to a “rebirth of anarchy in the public transport sector”, claims Peter Muiruri. PHOTO| BRIAN CLIFF 

After hearing fantastic tales about “the best matatu on the Ongata Rongai route” BRIAN CLIFF decided to check it out. He recounts his ride on the Blackberry.

It is a hot, dusty afternoon and the main matatu terminus in Ongata Rongai is a bee-hive of activity. The sweltering temperatures provide a welcome relief from the previous days’ chilly weather and create booming business for bottled-water vendors.

 A commotion, which at first, sounded like a rush to witness the stoning of an unlucky pick-pocket turns out to be a scramble to board a matatu that had just arrived.  

“Is that the Blackberry,” I ask a casually-dressed young man who seems elated at the arrival of the minibus.  

He gives me a barely coherent answer as he dashes to board it.

Two months earlier, a friend of mine who lives in Rongai town had praised the minibus’s widespread reputation among local commuters, so while in the area on a different assignment, I seized the opportunity to check out his claims.

I spoke to 19 random commuters between the ages of 18 and 40, 13 of whom waiting  to travel to the Nairobi CBD in four different matatus. I also picked two random matatu drivers, one conductor and three hawkers and asked them all the same question: Which is the most popular, most liked and most-talked-about matatu plying the Rongai Town-Nairobi CBD Route NUMBER 125?

All except one confirmed that it was the “Blackberry”. 

But even the only dissenting voice, a youthful 26-year-old businessman, initially mentioned the popular, pimped-up Isuzu minibus before changing his mind  and named a more recent entrant on the route.  

As it drove into the terminus, the Blackberry-branded minibus glowed as the sun rays reflected upon its imposing, shiny black body. Although the graffiti work on Rongai’s most celebrated matatu isn’t that colourful or overwhelming, it is sophisticated in its simplicity.  

ARTISTIC SIMPLICITY

This artistic simplicity, according to Mohamed “Moha” Kartar of Moha Grafix, is the true beauty of art. Moha, 37, has been in the matatu graffiti trade for a decade.

He promptly acknowledges the expertise of Porsche Designers whom, he admits, succeeded in reproducing a mobile phone technology theme onto the matatu exterior with a lot of fidelity.   

“As soon as you look at the matatu, you immediately recognise a unique theme used for its artwork,” he told Zuqka while showering praises on President Uhuru Kenyatta whose directive in November last year to allow matatu graffiti, he says, unleashed more creative freedom in the industry. 

Craftily airbrushed images of a Blackberry mobile phone’s QWERTY keypad and screen icons blend well with the matatu’s predominantly black exterior, itself a reflection of the staple colour of all Blackberry mobile phones. The phone’s instant messaging feature has its initials, “BBM” (Blackberry Messenger) forged onto the matatu’s front grill using shiny aluminium plates to give the matatu its own uniquely customised logo.

And within just six minutes of the matatu’s arrival, all the seats are occupied and the minus bus leaves for Nairobi on its first trip of the evening shift. I’m lucky to have found a seat as they are often booked.

“Many of our clients call me or my conductor to book seats even before the bus arrives at the stage,” says Peter “Tupac” Njuguna, 35, the proud driver of the matatu. I find a chance to engage him briefly during a brief traffic snarl-up on Magadi Road.

I learn that the crew’s courtesy and the fact that they “never” hike the fare during peak hours are what have endeared them to many college students and young professionals operating on a tight budget. This, in addition to the ambience created by trendy music played through state-of-the-art multi-media entertainment systems, has earned the commuter bus loyalists who swear by the all-round satisfying experience of travelling in it.  

LOYAL COMMUTER

Martha Ogechi, a 32-year-old research assistant, is one such loyal commuter. For months on end, she has been sold on the matatu’s “predictable” fares and crew’s courtesy. And although she is a staunch Christian, she doesn’t mind the predominantly secular music played because, she has noted, it’s not overly raunchy. 

Next to a window seat located half-way down the passenger cabin is Douglas Waweru, a 25-year-old communication student heading for his afternoon classes at the Multimedia University of Kenya on Magadi road. Rhythmically nodding his head to the hip hop beats booming from the speakers, he likes the fact that the “Blackberry” is always full of “teeniez” (Sheng for young people).  

“I would be so uncomfortable riding in a mat full of baby boomers,” he chuckles as he prepares to alight at his the matatu approaches the university’s bus stage.  

I was sitting at the back  so I had a wide-angle view of a festival of lights, speakers and screens embellishing the passenger cabin. A conspicuous 42-inch plasma screen in the passenger cabin displays live video feed of the road ahead through CCTV cameras mounted on the matatu’s windscreen. The driver uses controls on the dashboard to toggle between real-time, live video feeds of the road ahead and booming music video mixes. 

GLITTERING CEILING

And like a deer caught in the headlights, I am still staring at the flat screen and the 6x9 inch mid-range Pioneer speakers mounted on the glittering ceiling when the minibus leaves the bumpy Magadi road and joins Langata Road, accelerating to cover the distance up to Nyayo Stadium in a matter of minutes.

Commuters aboard the Blackberry enroute to

Commuters aboard the Blackberry enroute to Nairobi .PHOTO | BRIAN CLIFF

However, unlike me, a bachelor of commerce student going for evening classes at the University of Nairobi isn’t as smitten by the matatu’s interior attractions as she is by the fact that she has “never been sexually harassed” by its crew. Eunice Sigana cites the crew’s professionalism in handling female passengers as the main reason she loves to use the minibus that registered under the Ongata Line Sacco. 

This makes for a good case study of how courtesy and professionalism in customer relations could attract loyal clientele and by extension, stable revenues in business. Because of loyal customers like Eunice, the owner of the famed bus, who prefers anonymity, makes at least Sh12,000 each day, after deducting the fuel and maintenance costs. This daily installment is welcome as he seeks a return on his costly investment. You see, according to fellow Ongata Line Sacco DriverJames Wamburu, who also runs wambururu.wordpress.org, a public blog that exclusively discusses public transport, a new souped up matatu will set you back a cool Sh5 million.

“It’s a tough business,” agrees Driver Tupac, as he lets the vehicle cruise on the stretch along Uhuru Highway approaching the Haile Selassie roundabout.

“Tupac” says that challenges notwithstanding, he enjoys his job and takes it seriously, hoping to own his own matatu in future. A typical day on the road sees him deal with fake music copyright officials seeking bribes to allow his minibus to play local music, and greedy traffic policemen who often flag him down on “flimsy” grounds.

Circling the roundabout, he then steers the bus right and onto Haile Selassie Avenue, taking the inner lane to branch towards the National Oil stage, which is still referred to as “Agip”, after the fuel station’s previous name.

We finally pull up at the city stage to meet hordes of Ongata Rongai-bound college students and young professionals who had patiently waited for the arrival of the popular manyanga.

“This matatu’s deadly combination of stylish looks, good music and the integrity of the crew is what causes that...” Njuguna says, as he points to the view from his side mirrors of commuters jostling to board the “Blackberry” for the ride back to the “diaspora,” as Ongata Rongai is called, although it is only 21 kilometres from the city centre.