Laissez-faire

This was written on the blackboard in the classroom where my Unix class was this morning. I asked the students what it meant and they told me it meant giving the workers a task and letting them get on with it as they pleased. I said I thought it was about what happened to me as I boarded a Matatu for Nairobi from Kitui yesterday:

I travelled with Benard Mutua, he who set up the new vocational training centre down the raod in Nguluni. As we neared the stage to board a vehicle for our return journey we became players in a strange performance. There were two Nissan vans waiting to take passengers to the capital. And the conductor and various other touts from each were prowling the street next to the stage. As we approached, each with a backpack, it wasn’t hard to guess where we were going. Med descended upon us from all sides. It was a bit like a well arranged broad daylight mugging and I started to feel a bit uncomfortable.

The two vans were clearly in competition. Each had a sign on the roof saying it was going to Nairobi/Afya Centre. There were some people sitting in each. Men approached us with arms outstretched. To channel us to their vehicles and to deflect the competition. Heads and faces came close to ours making offers:

“Yes, sir, come here, two hundred bob”

“Yes, sir, here you can have the front seat”

Clearly some of the people sitting in those vehicles were “seat warmers”, paid a small sum to sit in the van and make it look as if it is full so that other passengers will get in hoping to have chosen the first vehicle to fill up and start its journey.

I looked at Benard as he spoke to them in Kikamba for a while and then he decided we should remain standing and watch to see what happened next. What happened next was that the touts became so eager to get us to board their vehicles that they actually started a fight, right there in the street, slapping and pushing one anohter!

After a while we boarded one that looked as if it was getting full. Hard to judge. The man in the front sat got out and someone else — a real passenger — had to be found to replace him. By this time I was ensconced in the back seat with my kneed twisted to the side to fit: my normal position for Nissan journeys. When the van pulled out I learned something else about matatu travel in Kenya: You can’t judge the shock absorbers of a Matatu until you board it and it starts moving.

There were none. And, apparently, no speed governor either.

As I juddered down the road feeling my spine twist and compress I wondered about what had just happened. Private public-transport looks like big business in Kenya. These two vans were free to compete to provide the same service. According to what I have heard about capitalism and free markets, the customer’s choice should mean that we find two gleaming comfortabel matatus waiting for us with polite courtious staff ushering us within. Instead we found two derelect heaps and witnessed a fistfight between the touts.

The missing ingredient in my understand dawned on me when I was about an hour and half into the two-and-a-half hour journey that took three. What people care about most of all is cost and waiting time. In the city, I am told, matatus grow huge sound systems because somehow young people are attracted to board the loudest. (Personally I find this hard to believe and favor the model that it increases the pilot’s [sic] status). Out in Kitui, customers will board the vehicle that looks most as if it is about to leave, unless they are charging more than the other. If, somehow, Mr Mutua’s idea could be applied on a larger scale, all potential passengers would wait in a group, not committed to either matatu until there were fourteen of us. Then we could choose one matatu over the other — the one with the best shocks perhaps if there was some way to know — board it together, and leave. This might put some pressure on the crews to improve their vehicles. But while we passengers are willing to be herded about and bullied by violent conductors, there is no incentive for the quality of transport to improve.

I got up at 6 this mornign and ran a quick 4km followed by a long stretch. Clicks and cracks could be heard coming from my spine as un expanded and straightened. Kenyan public transport goes on the list of things I will not miss come 5 months time when I leave.