Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Matatu Story With a Happy Ending

Schools are having their graduation ceremonies and everyone is going home for the holidays. Traveling by matatu today was a nightmare. I was at the stage in Eldoret this afternoon, trying to find a vehicle back to my town. So were 150 other people vying for 14 seats. (In reality, they were vying for about 25 “seats” – empty space inside a matatu that you can cram a person into.)

Everytime a matatu pulled up, there was a mad rush of people pushing each other out of the way so they could board. Kenyans don’t queue. And no one takes it personally if someone else pushes them out of the way and snatches a seat.

As many times as I’ve seen this scene, it still annoyed me. There were at least five touts whose job it was to load people into vehicles in some sort of organized way, but they were all standing around doing nothing while passengers stampeded into the matatu like crazed bovine.

“DOESN’T ANYONE KNOW HOW TO QUEUE?” I said loudly, to no one in particular. Complaining loudly to no one in particular has become my main coping mechanism for idiocy and chaos. “YOU CAN’T JUST PUSH PEOPLE OUT OF THE WAY WHEN THEY’VE BEEN WAITING LONGER THAN YOU. AND WHY AREN’T THESE TOUTS DOING THEIR JOBS? THEY SHOULD BE TELLING PEOPLE TO QUEUE.”

“It’s true,” a man next to me said. “That’s the way it should be.” I hadn’t noticed him before, but he was standing there, watching people crush each other in the doorway of the matatu. He looked like he wanted to board, but wasn’t up for shoving and throwing elbows.

I was slightly surprised by his reaction. Kenyans usually just laugh or ignore me completely when I complain. I felt encouraged by his support, so I grabbed one of the touts by the arm and repeated, “Why don’t you tell people to queue? Isn’t that your job? You can’t have everyone trying to crowd onto the matatu at once.”

The tout just gave me a blank stare. He didn’t understand English. The man next to me quickly translated, and the tout responded the way most touts respond to suggestions from passengers – he turned his back on us and walked away. I started to think of things to say for my next round of loud complaining to no one in particular.

I didn’t have to. The tout must have taken our advice because people were slowly beginning to queue. It was a small miracle. I’ve only seen Kenyans queue up for matatus in Nairobi, and even then only for about three different routes (out of hundreds). I followed the man next to me to the back of the line, which already had 20 people in it. A minute later it stretched halfway down the block. And we were the only route whose passengers were waiting in line. None of the other routes seemed to notice or care that suddenly there was efficiency in their midst, and that maybe they could learn from it.

I was just impressed that someone had listened to me. People were boarding the matatu without pushing or otherwise trying to hurt each other, and the touts were even making sure no one was trying to cut to the front of the line. It made me want to say I told you so, but I couldn’t think of how to say it in Swahili.

Ona, nilikuambia hivyo.


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