“I can’t hear you!!” I shouted desperately into my mobile phone, “Lawrence? Can you hear me?”
Though we’d been through the same rigmarole at least half a dozen times, I was still perturbed when Lawrence called me from a matatu. I always expected, when I received a phone call from my partner in crime, my loved one, the man who made me feel like I was the only woman in the world, that it would be to have a conversation.
But every time I received a call that consisted of a racket of noise and an impossibility to hear any human sounds or words, I knew that he was sharing his matatu party with me.
Every time, once I realized what the reason for the call was, I settled down, wherever I was when I picked up the phone, and rode away on a sonic dream into a Nairobi matatu to enjoy the deafening noise and existential numbness which Lawrence knew I loved.
But I hadn’t always loved them. The first time I took one I was ill, with feverish sweats, a painful throat and a nose unable to perform any of its normal functions. I was able to lie down on the back seats, a rarity on public transport, and attempt to let the pounding music soothe my throbbing temples, giving a disturbing counter-rhythm to the beat in my head.
It didn’t make me feel better, but it plunged me into surreal dreams, and meant that the bus didn’t just take me from one side of the city to the other, but to a world of turquoise waters, on a far-away planet where the sky was pink and winged horses flew down from the heavens and licked poorly young women’s faces. Fortunately, I didn’t awake to any animal or other living creature licking at my face, instead I was carried to my sick bed and left to rest for 24 hours being fed fresh fruit and plain broth.
A matatu is most likely the last place anybody should be when not feeling at their best, for there are few other places where you find yourself in such close proximity to other human beings, exposed to colds, flus and irrational behavior from all over Kenya and even further afield, cramped into tight spaces,sometimes with no room to breathe or stretch your legs.
I generally manage to slot mine into the cavity in front of me, though my knees go numb being pinned up against the seat facing me. Lawrence, however, tall and broad as he is, generally has to call upon all of his flexibility and endurance to get through a journey.
The longest journey we ever did in a matatu was 6 hours, and was more eventful than an evening out on the tiles. I managed to get 2 naps in, we had hawkers and preachers, a near fist-fight and a stunning sunset, all of that from Ngong to the centre of town. The music was barely audible in that matatu, which I remember noticing and noting how unusual it was.
Generally speaking, where there is music in a public bus in Nairobi, there is a deafening level of decibels. This lack of “thumpety-thump” left airspace for the God-fearers and the bible sellers who squeezed their way up and down the central aisle, and paused at strategic spots to address the commuter crowd, much to everyone’s amusement and frustration.
One traveller even replied that no one had any money today and that they should come back tomorrow, when they might have more luck. Everybody offered a weary smile and communal chuckle, and the matatu was a unit, a familial zone for honesty and solidarity, for one short moment.
I keep referring to ‘we’ because I rarely ventured out into the streets of Nairobi to complete a journey on my own. Lawrence had grown up in the capital and could navigate the streets and chaotic transport system with his eyes closed and walking backwards, whilst I on the other hand needed my hand held through the whole process, or I would undoubtedly end up in the wrong area, or even the wrong city.
I would often insist on having my hand held during the journey, both out of safety and reassurance, and because I had a specific emotional attachment to these unique vehicles, and wanted to feel that I was sharing the experience with Lawrence, and that we were there, together; joined.
Recently there has been a spate of projects to map the myriad routes and tangents of the system, including a pioneering technological project run by the University of Nairobi, MIT and the Rockefeller Foundation, called ‘digital matatu’.
This innovative system has enabled a map to be drawn up detailing all the routes taken by buses in the city, and also highlight the gaps and failings of the system, meaning pressure is being put on authorities to improve the services provided for Nairobians and visitors.
What these maps can’t show you, are the tunes played during your journey. Or the posters which adorn the ceiling, the window frames and the sides of the vehicles, enticing passengers to choose that matatu above all others.
A highlight during my time in Nairobi was an instant shout-out system, with a scrolling light display showing messages sent via SMS by individual passengers, addressing one or all of their fellow commuters.
One young man was brave enough to call for the attention of “the byootiful lady with the wavy hair and blue top in the second row” who “caught my i and my heart and I truly wanna hold your hand forever”. I don’t know what became of it, for she didn’t reply to the message being flashed up for all to see, but I sincerely hope it led to a happy ever after.
These aspects of matatu journeys can’t be summed up in a map or an article. They can be shared anecdotally, photographed, filmed or recounted, but all merely serve as an invitation to experience it, and savour it for yourself.
If you take a matatu every day, it may be easy to become tired of these garish excesses and the loudness, but it’s important to stop, listen to the music, drown everything out, and maybe even make a phone call, to remind someone far away of what they’re missing out on.