Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Of men in matatus

One of my most iconic memories of previous trips to Kenya has been the sight of overloaded matatus (mini-buses) flinging themselves around potholes at death-defying speeds as yet more passengers attempted to hitch a lift by grabbing hold of the ankles of those clinging desperately to the roof. Maximum speed limits were treated as a target to reach and exceed as quickly as possible. Eye-popping colour schemes vied with ear-deafening music volumes to attract the attention of any orbiting spacecraft. Danger and excitement wrapped up in one teeth-rattling package on four wheels.

But it appears that the matatu's vim and vigour has been muffled of late. From the danger point of view, this is rather a good thing, since matatu accidents have traditionally been fairly horrific. In Nairobi, fleets of nicely painted uniform minibuses in either purple or green now clog the rush-hour traffic. According to a taxi driver I spoke to, it all has something to do with the relative of someone in government who owns a bus-import business. Consequently, the green ones are better than the purple ones. Or was it the other way around?

Down on the coast, matatus have retained their free-spirited approach to music and d├ęcor, as long as it doesn't involve actual people and their relatives doing performance art out of the windows. However, a new new form of transport appears to be filling the gap 'twixt bumper and gearstick. The same three-wheeling star of Public Transport Destiny shines on the coastal towns of Brighton, Malindi and Mombasa: they have all taken the tuk-tuk to their hearts and made it their own.

I have seen at least six and a half (counted limbs and divided by 4) people crowded into one of these motorised rickshaws (what else is a boot for?), but the more usual two (fat) or three (skinny) passengers appears to be the norm. As for me? I'd advocate a sports bra on most routes.

The cheaper, more eco-friendly alternative, the boda-boda remains popular as well. Since proper ladies ride sidesaddle these, a certain degree of genteel fearlessness is necessary when it comes to maintaining dignity on the padded seat. Particularly while flying over speedbumps on a downhill slope. It's all a bit like swans, really. Frantic movement below the surface, while above, a serene smile and unruffled countenance. If I can ever get the hang of toting a bundle on my head while riding as well, I'll be indominatable.

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