Saturday, 4 February 2012

Matatu puzzle

Like a freshman in Nairobi, I keep getting on the wrong matatu on my way to work! 

Matatu: a privately operated minibus taxi, ubiquitous in
Kenya.  There must be 10,000 in Nairobi alone. 
That's the tout, in the standard maroon waistcoat.

If I get on the wrong one it leaves me either stranded on the highway, or shaken to death as we crawl through The Suburb That Has Never Seen Tarmac, known as Imara.  I'm not just shaken by the way, but experience gripping-the-seat-back-danger as we drive along the 'path' which doubles as a sewer, at a 45 degree angle (I close my eyes to pretend the window isn't getting closer to the 'water').  Plus Imara provides extra delays due to an informal police checkpoint where all unlucky matatus are stopped for a full ten minutes while a cop walks round, checking if it's road-worthy (as if!) and the papers are in order.  Then, more faff as the inevitable 'taxation' occurs: the matatu driver or tout is forced to fork over 'something small' to bride their way back into steady stream of traffic.

Either way, I get to work late or traumatised and generally both. 

But how does this happen? I hear you ask, surely you've worked everything out by now, Trenchard?  Can't you just -

Option A: Check the route numbers on the side of the matatu? Nope, the shaken-and-stirred route has the same number as the mostly-tarmacked way.

Option B: Listen to the loud sales pitch as the touts yell the route to the incoming passengers?  Not always, as with gig-volume music booming from every mat, it's not always clear what the touts are shouting.  Sometimes it's so loud they looks like they're miming, even close up.

Option C:  So what about, ask the touts?  Ha - I do!  And here we come to the puzzle.

The matatu touts shout the route, take the fares, and generally do everything to operate the business, except the driving.  They are the usual go-to guys for the 'I'm going here, do you?' questions.  After a month of commuting, every tout on the route knew that the muzungu goes to Roundabout, and I would just stroll up to Belle Vue stage at 8am, and be led onto a matatu going my way.  If I sat on a wrong one, they would drag me out and plonk me on the right one.  I quite liked it; made me feel like I'd arrived; like I was being looked after, looked-out-for.  They even knew I liked going via Cabanas to avoid shake-rattle-roll Imara.

Sorted, right?  Except I forgot the touts are all in competition for passengers.  So now a new pattern has emerged.  Or maybe I've only just figured out what's happening...

This particular morning I'm approached and surrounded by four touts but two give up quickly.  One guy is quick and confident, marching me off to his matatu with his hand on my back:

Tout: Roundabout, madam. This way! (This is my special treatment, madam)
Me: (checking, as always) Cabanas - then Rounda?
Tout: (knowing I want to hear this) Yes yes.
Other tout: No no, he is taking you to Imara, his goes through Imara!
Me: (to first tout) Does it?
Tout: No, no, Cabanas Rounda!
Other tout: He go Imara, come with me my dear we go Cabanas (a different hand on my back, now he's marching me off to a different matatu.
Me: (exasperated, feeling manhandled and confused)  Argh WHICH one goes Cabanas Rounda?

They book look shifty and smiley and claim they do, but the other, doesn't.  No wonder I've been ending up in the wrong place in recent weeks.  But which one is lying?

It reminds me of the old fork in the road puzzle.  Stopping to ask the way you find two people showing you the way.  You learn that one always lies, and one always tells the truth, but not which is which.  They both know the correct fork, but what one question do you ask them both, to find out which it is?
What to do?

In the puzzle you have to ask them both, what would the other one say?  The truth-sayer will then lie, and the liar should say the truth, but he's a liar, so he lies.  Anyway, they both give the same answer, and then you take the other fork.  That's the point.

Are you following this?

So back in Nairobi, I'm still stuck on the side of the road like a small white TARGET trying to decide what to do as the chaos rages around me.  It strikes me that they could both be kidding just to get my 20 bob (14p) fare, over the other.  What should I do?

Generally I use a combination of options A, B and C with a little guessing and my gut feel.  The worst that happens is that the journey through heavily-rutted Imara reminds me of the fragility of life, and I spend the day feeling glad I'm alive (which is no bad thing really), or - I tramp along the highway being stared at, and wait for another matatu at Cabanas whilst being stared at, so I can get to Roundabout, where I'm stared at.  But I just hate feeling like I'm fresh off the boat, you know?

In the end, on this particular morning, I ask a passenger, a woman, in the first matatu: where is this going?  She replies 'cabanas-rounda' and I get on.  And it does, in fact, take me that way so today I get to work not too late, or traumatised, but just covered with my usual layer of dirt from the swirling, dry season dust-devils that accompany me along the road.

But sometimes I miss commuting into London.


A note to say that Matatu touts are not bad folk; they work long, unsociable hours trying to scrape a living here and provide for their family like everyone else.  Plus I found a matatu driver who writes a blog and quotes Machiavelli, so I'm looking at them all a-fresh... 

1 comment:

  1. Hahahahaha! Interesting.
    You might be pleased to know that the roads were significantly upgraded :-)