Monica’s life seems lonely to me. Not in the way that standing at the airport alone, after your lover says goodbye, is lonely. It is lonely in the pleasurable way that reading a book is. Every weekday at four a.m., Monica gets up. With only Nairobi’s cold morning breeze for company, she leaves her house and heads to Nyayo Estate Gate B: a twenty minute walk. In June’s cold, it helps that her uniform includes a long sleeved red shirt, with a stripe at the collar the colour of the midday sky. She pushes the door and walks up two steps into the 33-seater matatu which will be her home for the next nineteen hours.
Matatus are public vehicles in Kenya that range in size from huge buses to 14-seater Nissan vans. Some are owned by individuals while many are owned by groups called Savings and Credit Co-operative groups (SACCOs). In these groups, people pool together money to buy the vehicles and then share the profits. Each matatu is staffed by two people: a driver and a conductor, like Monica, whose job is to collect fares and to let people into and out of the matatu. Monica’s matatu is one of hundreds of thousands of matatus in the country. She transports 33 people nearly every hour, sometimes meeting the same people she’d transported earlier that day.
Monica settles down into a chair next to the door as the matatu joins Outer Ring Road, then Jogoo Road and then enters the city centre. She then stands up and collects fares, swaying to the rhythm of the moving matatu, steadying herself against the chairs. Bus companies like Citi Hoppa have tried to make these transactions cashless. There was the Beba Card, on to which you could load money and then swipe it like a debit card. Lipa na M-pesa is another alternative, a mobile money transfer through which you could send money to the bus’ account. But in a city that has been nicknamed Nairoberry – a city whose conmen and daylight robbers often have me wishing I had eyes all around my head – people are always wary about having their money swindled. Monica, for instance, was prompted to leave the hairdressing industry and find a more lucrative job when thieves took away everything in her house, including her hairdressing equipment. So people prefer to give the cash to Monica, whose life they walk into and out of, rather than use a card whose inner workings they do not understand.
If people get off the matatu, Monica hops off too, trying to convince more people to get on with a “Hamsini Town, Hamsini Town”. The more people she carries, the more money she earns. She has a quota which she has to give her employer and then any money left over is her own. She takes home about 2000 shillings – 20 dollars – nearly half the monthly rent of many houses in her neighborhood. Sometimes, though, when she hops out of the matatu, she collects more dust than she does passengers.
Nairobians pride themselves on knowing which matatu to take in which part of town. When stranded, you ask matatu conductors like Monica. You cannot trust Google because, just last summer (amidst complaints about misnamed Nairobi avenues), they offered you an enthusiastic “18 minutes to Africa” when you tried to get around in Kenya. They finally added Nairobi’s matatu system to their maps, taking pains to make the chaos that is the matatu industry legible, but many people would still prefer to make their own brains maps. The blue, red and white boxes painted on the side of Monica’s matatu resemble a crossword, and are to me a symbol of how difficult it is finding your way around Nairobi.
Women venturing into the routes served by the Embassava sacco will hesitate to ask directions from male conductors, even with the same Embassava badge that Monica wears. Last year, videos flooded Kenya’s social media spaces, in which women who were deemed scantily dressed, were stripped of their clothes by matatu touts. People believed the perpetrators to be Embassava conductors. But Monica says she was present and it was a jealous ex boyfriend, not matatu touts, who stripped this woman of her clothes. An Embassava bus passing in the background of the video recording implicated them, she says. This may still not exonerate matatu touts altogether, since many other videos went viral of the same thing happening to other women.
Women drivers and conductors have always been rare in the matatu industry. Even now, for a lot of Nairobians, there is something avant-garde about a picture of a woman walking down the aisle, asking you to pay up. Like they are in a gallery, Nairobians still stop to aah and ooh at this picture. Legend has it that the first woman in the matatu industry, a John the Baptist who paved the way for other women, was called Senorita. She was single, like many of the women I have met working in matatus.
Nowadays, the matatu industry is a sponge for women looking to join the working class. Since the dusk of Mwai Kibaki’s presidency, there has been an increase in Al Shabaab attacks on Nairobi matatus. At bus stops, before people get into the various matatus, touts frisk them using a metal detector. Women conductors are better placed to frisk other women. And more and more women want to find out how the maroon uniforms would look on them, that the former Transport Minister Michuki made all conductors wear in 2004. Some women who work with Monica are students who work part time so they can pay their school fees.
Monica puts away some of her money every day so she can pay school fees for her own seven children, many of whom are away at boarding school. She has only the younger ones left and, returning home at midnight and leaving again at four a.m. each day, she barely sees them during her work week. She might as well be alone in the house, because they are asleep when she is awake.
Another woman I meet works the 105 Nairobi – Kikuyu matatu route that takes you to Alliance Girls’ High School, one of the best high schools in Kenya. At Alliance Girls’ where she delivers these young women, students are encouraged to work hard, because who would marry you if you did not work hard?
Women in Nairobi are taught to look at alone-ness as something to be sneered at. The trajectory of a girl’s life – even one who, by society’s standards of smartness, has excelled and has made it by a quota system to the highest level of secondary school – is always aimed towards combating alone-ness and singlehood. Teachers, male and female, want to know who will marry you. Peers, male and female, mock you about singing along to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ and remind you Beyonce has a man at home. Perhaps, even now, as I tell you the stories of Monica and Rachel, I am highlighting their alone-ness because in my eyes it is so exotic. But Monica’s daughters know that a widow can raise seven children alone. Monica makes the life of a woman alone seductive in the way that bachelorhood has been made seductive. She earns her own money. She decides what to do with it.
Rachel, the owner of Hotsteppa, the matatu that won the East Africa Motorshow, has mastered aloneness so much that she wanes in the national conversation about her matatu. National newspapers report her friend Abel Ouma, the man who encouraged her to buy a matatu, as the actual owner of the matatu. Rachel manages the matatu from behind the curtains, like the director of a play. She hides her identity for her own security, fearing that she may endanger her life like the director of Rasasi investment, who was shot in October. When there is a problem, she lets her friend deal with the other men on the ground because “he can threaten them”.
Matatus are Nairobi looking itself in the mirror. Men threaten. Women are threatened. Men are the only ones who can be in control. This may be why for women to survive in the matatu industry, they have to act as they would in a play, complete with costumes like maroon trousers that are traditionally considered male. Rachel has employed a manager to play her double. He rides on the matatu all day and collects the money after every trip. That way, she says, employees cannot lie to her that they got arrested and had to pay fines, or got punctures. The employees in turn call this middle-man Battery, because he links them to her so that they cannot swindle her.
If Monica’s life is about working with hundreds of people all day, Rachel’s is about controlling hundreds of people each day, as, on another scale, is Mary Mwangi’s, who owns over a hundred buses. Rachel uses phone calls from Battery as her morning alarm. And she spends the day putting out fires: punctures, policemen, accidents.
Rachel left her job in South Sudan due to insecurity. With her savings, and a lot of pleading because she did not have a payslip, she secured a loan from Toyota, a company which is eager to sell its new ‘Helio’ brand for use as matatus. She spent two and a half months designing the matatu: installing the three TV sets, a music system, deciding to put the word Hotsteppa in the interior – not words like Arsenal or Manchester United which could be divisive – and picking the purple and yellow theme of the matatu. She spent her evenings on Youtube, watching MTV’s Pimp My Ride.
Despite now having a team of employees she likes, Rachel has had to sack some along the way. The first driver got into an accident. The second driver tried to stipulate that he bring his own conductor to work with, so, she said, they could conspire over their stories and swindle her. Drivers, who sometimes have celebrity status, are not bothered about her matatu and ruin it by speeding. They want to complete many journeys and maximise on their earnings while the matatu is still new. On the side of Monica’s matatu is painted a red aeroplane, nose raised proudly as it perches into the air. It reminds me of the speed with which the drivers, nicknamed pilots, operate the matatus.
Rachel has had to abandon many of her other exploits and spends most of her days monitoring all her employees, from backstage. When Rachel first got her matatu, men called ‘hangers’ would lean out of the door of the matatu and pretend to fall and hurt themselves. Then, they would go to the police and ask that Rachel compensate them. Both Rachel and Monica are frustrated by policemen. Rachel has a lawyer friend who advises her on her rights and, to the surprise of other people, her matatu is barely ever confiscated by the police.
Rachel refused to have her matatu all yellow, because she felt so many other matatus in Nairobi were yellow. She also made a decision to pay salaries per day rather than commissions, to ensure her employees didn’t ruin her matatu by trying to fit in extra trips each day. She is anxious because this may mean that they will not work as hard.
Maybe Nairobi itself teaches a sense of competition that can grow unhealthy. In a society where only about half of the students who finish primary school go on to graduate from high school, it is perhaps not surprising that a relative advised Rachel against hiring a woman because the men would get jealous. She says: “[In] this industry you’ll be hurting the lady [and] they even call a police”. Since matatu men are seen as not having succeeded in life, all successful women, however subtle, threaten them. They try to assert their space within the industry by putting down women who try to succeed within it. Sometimes, even male passengers refuse to board matatus driven by women. Yet women who venture into the industry are also popular. The policemen, who frustrate both Monica and Rachel by accusing them of things which they have to pay for, actually let women drivers go more easily than they do men. Rachel says, “Ladies are favorites even if she makes a mistake”. When Rachel gave a woman driver the matatu for a weekend, she attracted more customers, and Hotsteppa got significant social media clout. Rachel will consider hiring her full time when she gets a new matatu.
Mary Mwangi, the owner of the Double M, a fleet of buses that traverses Nairobi, employs more women than other fleets do. This may be because women are more likely to give fellow women a chance. Thanks to Michuki’s laws, there are also now laws protecting workers from sudden dismissal when working for bus fleets.
Many people tried to scare Rachel when she decided to enter the industry, but both Rachel and Monica would recommend their jobs to anybody in a heartbeat. Monica insists on maintaining her 3-4 hour sleeping schedule, protesting the suggestion that her children could help her once they finish high school; insisting that they must go to college instead. In the morning, she returns home, removes her uniform and takes a bath.
Ivy Nyayieka is a writer from Nairobi. An English major at Yale, she writes for the Huffington Post and the Yale Daily News. She is passionate about journalism and is currently writing a long work of realistic fiction. Follow Ivy on Twitter here.