Matatu Fight

Matatus (minibuses) are an essential part of Kenyan culture, albeit a constant source of personal consternation and bewilderment. Some of my most “Nairobi” experiences have taken place while riding matatus, like last year when I saw a matatu conductor fighting a dude on roller blades, the guy skating away while avoiding buses and cars flying towards him on one of the busiest roads in the city. Check out the story at “Stories from Africa”.

Last week I got into a fight of my own. Going home from downtown Nairobi, the matatu fare is always 80 Kenyan Shillings (I know this because I’ve ridden that road in traffic far too many times). I get into the vehicle without asking the price, and when payment time comes, the conductor (assistant who collects the money) says it’s 150 shillings. Now 150 shillings is not a lot of money, less than $2, but it’s the principle of the matter. Arguing over principles will always get you into trouble in Africa.

Thinking this guy was charging me the muzungu (foreigner) price, I asked why the fare had doubled since the day before. Glaring at me with bloodshot evil eyes (I think he was drunk), the conductor philosophically stated that “things change,” turning back dramatically. Not satisfied, I retaliated by asking the other passengers for the real price. Apparently he had charged them the same high price, and although I could no longer pull the racist card, I suddenly became either the voice of discontent or the laughing stock (I’m not sure which) of the entire vehicle.

Now hearing complaints from other passengers as a result of my rebellion, the conductor stared me down again and came up with an even deeper truism to shut me up.

“I just want to tell you one thing white man. Mind your P’s and Q’s.”

Of all the foul language I expected to hear, I was taken by surprise by this proper British scolding and I actually burst out laughing. This made the situation worse and we descended into shouting about something or other, I honestly can’t remember. I know at one point he told me I should have paid him in dollars. This continued for a while, other passengers chiming in on both sides and telling me to calm down. Preferring to walk rather than continue this awkward trip, I jumped out of the bus as quickly as I could and tried to disappear.

Being almost the only white person on my side of town, this obviously never happens. After a few hundred meters, the matatu caught up with me and the conductor sarcastically asked if I wanted to get back in. Holding my head down, I ignored the taunting as the matatu sped past, leaving only a trail of dust and diesel fumes in its wake.

Now I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my actions. I became the ugly American by complaining about a few cents in front of people who have far less than I do. Strangely enough though, I felt extremely relieved after the incident. My drunk matatu conductor ended up helping me relieve some stress and acted as my verbal punching bag. And fighting with a complete stranger means you don’t have to deal with any of the consequences! I’m not saying what I did was right, but for better or for worse I did feel better…

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