Matutu Musical Chairs: Nairobi Part One

I’m making my trip to Nairobi into three parts—Part 2 coming Tuesday and Part 3 Wednesday

I seem incapable of having boring matatu (bus) rides whenever I go between Nanyuki and Nairobi. This weekend I went down into the city to visit two of my friends. My adventures started the moment I got onto the matatu.

The matatu business model is unlike any sort of public transportation in the States. The matatu waits at the station until it is full (either 7 passengers or 14) and then it takes off. It repeats the process at its destination, and then returns home. Accordingly, especially if there are multiple matatus at the same stand headed to the same place, drivers have an incentive to convince individuals that there matatu is in fact quite full. When I arrived at the Nanyuki stand, there was only 1 passenger, asleep in the front. However, the driver assured me that two other people had already bought tickets and just hadn’t gotten in yet (a tale I believed, back in the days when I was young and naïve in the ways of the matatu driver). So I got in, and before too long a man and his son got in. We sat around for a while, and then the son left, then the man in front woke up, got up and left (my working theory is he was a friend of the driver, used to make the matatu appear fuller). It appeared for a while that we would never leave, but then a family of five (including a son wearing a Yankees jacket got in, and we were ready to head out.

We did have a minor delay, as one of the family members ordered Fanta Orange from a vendor, and we couldn’t very well leave until that Fanta Orange was delivered. Finally, we were on our way, though the man’s son still hadn’t come back. The father talked on his phone to (presumably) his son, and from the bits of Swahili I could pick up, I gathered we were going to meet him at Nakumatt, the grocery store in town. However, when we got to town, the father did not meet up with his son, but rather a man in business attire, who got on and sat down next to me. And then we were off!

Another element of the journey that I hadn’t bargained for was the “shopping” that took place along the way. On the road, there are several market towns, where there are vendors on the street selling various items. At one, the mother of the family, seated in front, asked the driver to pull over, so she could buy bananas (at least I assume this to be the case, Swahili was the only language spoken on our trip). At once, there were at least 10 vendors around the car, trying to shove their bananas into the car, yelling that they should be the supplier of the woman’s bananas. Finally, she pointed at one, and I assumed the purchasing was over. However, it was far from it—the seller named a price, and then five other sellers immediately tried to undercut her in price. After some negotiation, bananas were bought from another individual. We also stopped a while later so that the same lady could buy rice, this time the delay came about when the seller negotiated with every other vendor to try and get change for the 1,000 shilling bill the mother used.

My matatu adventures were hardly over. I checked in my pocket for my phone, and discovered it had turned off while in my pocket. I nonchalantly turned it back on, and saw a screen asking for my password. Not a problem I figured, as I casually entered my PIN into the phone. “Password Incorect”. A little panicked, a tried it again, thinking that maybe I had mis-typed it. “Password Incorrect”. There was a separate password for the phone I had borrowed from my roommate (rather than the SIM Card I put into it), I didn’t know it, and all my contacts in Nairobi were saved on the phone!

I knew there was a Hilton Hotel near the bus stop, so I developed a plan. As soon as I got off the bus, I went to the Hilton. While I am all for the end of discrimination in the world, I think it is awful, and so on, I have to say I was extremely grateful at that moment that I was a white male. While there was a roped off area and security, when the guards saw me I received a hearty “Come in my friend!” I entered the lobby, and pulled out my computer to access the internet (figuring if I acted like I knew what I was doing, no one would bother me). I found the number for the cab that was going to pick me up, and talked to a concierge, who kindly let me use his phone. I called the cab driver, who said he would come, but I couldn’t really hear the answer. I sat around the lobby and waited, and waited, hoping that every cab allowed into the front area would be my guy. Eventually, 45 minutes later, he showed up—he had been stuck in traffic about a block from the place for about a half hour.

After that, the rest of the night went smoothly. I met up with my friends Zara and Cindy, and we went to dinner with some of Zara’s friends from the World Bank Group. Dinner was great, if somewhat oddly accompanied by televisions showing “Tom and Jerry” (we didn’t see any kids there). Afterwards, we drove to a club called Mercury that honestly could have been a club in New York City, right down to the blaring music and people too cool to either smile or dance. After two weeks in tiny little Nanyuki, it was pretty unreal spending my first night at a cosmopolitan place that really could have been anywhere in the world, with a collection of private equity bankers and consultants.

Here’s a preview for Part 2 (maybe I’ll have a link to a YouTube video tomorrow, I wanted to upload it to WordPress but they make you pay $60 a year for the right to upload videos)

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7 Responses to Matutu Musical Chairs: Nairobi Part One

  1. N P says:

    Eagerly anticipating parts 2 and 3! Not surprised but glad you were resourceful in heading to the Hilton.

  2. burningthecouch says:

    hilarious – do they also offer to sell you their whole matutu, like they do in morocco with the grand taxis? you can buy all six places if you like! (yes, that’s a four passenger car…) BM

    • nate0316 says:

      Yep, you can indeed! It ends up being pretty expensive though, it costs 5000 shillings to rent the whole matatu (so about $60 USD) while it only costs 500 ($6 USD) seat. So come to think of it, “buying all 8 seats” is cheaper than renting the whole matatu.

      • burningthecouch says:

        haha love it! oh the glorious inconsistencies of the developing world. so much more interesting, and fodder for delight!

  3. The King of the North says:

    My friend Walder once offered to ferry me across the Twins. He showed up like 7 hours late. And then told me we had to wait for twelve other relatives named Walder. He told me “one more minute” like 10 times and eventually we crossed. Only to have him try to pawn off a bunch of granddaughters on me from his various daughters. I’ve ignored the Late Lord Frey ever since.

    • nate0316 says:

      Haha this is in fact quite apt, probably more than you even realize. The “one more minute” line is used quite a bit, to confirm to all passengers that we are “just about to take off” and will be for the next half hour. And vendors try to sell you a bunch of stuff–pens, candy, keychains, etc while you sit around and wait. I tried to politely tell them no, but I eventually discovered the only way to get them to stop selling to you is to ignore them.

  4. lrb5 says:

    The shop from the matutu model gives drive through business a whole new spin!

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