NAIROBI, Kenya — "Super Fly" hurtled along two-lane Waiyaki Way at about 60 m.p.h., pumping out thick black smoke and listing like a troubled ship on the high seas.
The vehicle, a tiny pickup with a camperlike compartment for passengers, swayed dangerously, first to the right and then to the left, as the driver skirted yawning potholes. The bald rear tires were splayed by the weight of maize meal and firewood strapped to the roof.
Behind the driver, 14 passengers sat on facing benches. On their laps were more passengers. In the narrow aisle were still more passengers, standing hunched beneath the low ceiling.
"Super Fly" is one of the thousands of privately owned vehicles that speed along Kenya's ragged roads, ferrying people to work, to market and then home again. They are called matatus, and they are the backbone of the country's public transportation system.
Fast, plentiful and inexpensive, they are the free-market answer to the lack of buses and the high cost of taxicabs in this East African country. But they are also poorly maintained, usually overloaded--and sometimes deadly.
On a recent weekend, the "Omosaria Express," a matatu van carrying nearly twice its legal limit of 30 passengers, ran off a road in western Kenya and overturned, killing eight persons. A survivor, Joel Okongoo Mwebi, said the driver lost control as he and others were discussing a matatu accident on the road a few days earlier in which two persons had been killed.
An hour later in the same area, a matatu struck and injured a pedestrian. It was chased by a crowd of angry witnesses, and as the driver tried to speed away he lost control and his matatu overturned, killing a passenger.
Every week there are bold headlines in the papers here about matatu crashes. Death tolls are staggering. In Nairobi alone, 15 people have died in the past month, five in a matatu collision with an auto, eight when a matatu hit a parked truck, and two when a rear tire on a matatu blew out and the vehicle overturned.
President Daniel Arap Moi says matatus are "agents of death," and he has urged the police to crack down on overloaded and unsafe matatus. So far, the only evidence of a crackdown consists of a few fines for overloaded matatus and the first arrests of matatu drivers for offering the standard 30-shilling bribe (about $2) to policemen.
Kenyans know that matatus are unsafe. "People are hanging off them like luggage," a frequent passenger, Jacob Nyamai, 30, said the other day. "But what else can we do? People have to get to work."
Julius Mungua, 39, an office worker, climbs into a matatu every day at 6:30 a.m. He rides 20 miles to the city, changes to another matatu for a ride across town, and gets into a third matatu to get to his job at the airport. The commute takes him an hour and a half.
"You can't read" on a matatu, he said. "You can't sleep. It's not very comfortable. But you can wait an hour for a KBS (Kenya Bus Service) bus. Matatus you can get anytime."
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 matatus are operating in Kenya. They have been allowed to flourish, unregulated, because of a desperate need for inexpensive transportation. In this country, about the size of Texas and with about the same population, there is one auto for every 45 people. (In the United States the ratio is close to 1 to 1).
Origin of Name
The matatu first appeared here in substantial numbers more than 10 years ago. Matatu is the Swahili word for three, and it was applied in this instance because it referred to the price, in the local currency, of a ride to anywhere in town.
In those days, the official government view was that matatus were needed by the poor. But the view has begun to change because of the vehicles' poor safety records.
Matatu drivers gather every morning before dawn at one of more than a dozen "terminals" on the outskirts of Nairobi. The vehicles usually come in three basic sizes, a small pickup that legally seats 14, a van that seats about 20, and a larger van that seats 24. They are painted red, yellow or blue for the most part, though the bright colors have faded in the hot sun.
The fare is now 2.5 Kenyan shillings, about 16 cents U.S., the same fare charged by the Kenyan Bus System, but it drops to 2 shillings in the slack period at midday. That may not be much, but it adds up for the driver. The faster he drives and the more people he carries, the more money he makes.
Joseph Okongo, 24, a driver, makes about 1,000 shillings a day, about $60. Among his expenses for a recent day, carefully logged in a tattered notebook, were spare parts, "favors" to police officers, and 30 shillings (less than $2) for his conductor, who works 13 hours a day.
Signal for Turning
The driver and his conductor generally work as a team. In the smaller matatus the conductor is called a "turnboy" because one of his duties is to stand in the open back door and tell the driver, whose vision is blocked by luggage and passengers, when it is safe to turn.