Friday, February 10, 2017

Nostalgia and heartache

Before John Njoroge Michuki got it into his head to demolish the Kenya Bus Service Company LimitedI mean years before he did that—it used to be known as the Kenya Bus Service Corporation. At least I think it was called the Kenya Bus Service Corporation. And I think it was wholly owned by the City Council of Nairobi. I was child back then and I knew it as KBS. It was a familiar institution. It was there when my parents emigrated to the City and it was there when I was born and it was there when I buggered off to Machakos (which did not have a bus service of any kind, the little horrible town) and it was there when I ran away from home to India.

We lived on the No. 58 route, though the No. 59 and No. 36 routes intersected with the No. 58 route right near our bus stage. My world, most of the time, revolved around the No. 58 route between the Buru Buru I roundabout, up Mumias South Road, right onto Rabai Road, ending at the ACK St Philips bus stage along Charles New Road. Total distance: 3 kilometres. It wasn't until my father bought me m first Casio "Quartz" digital watch that I noticed the predictable fifteen-minutes-apart schedule of the No. 58 bus, the twenty-minutes-apart schedule of the No. 36, and the thirty-minutes-apart schedule of the No. 59. Like clockwork. Every single day except Sunday.

They were based on Leyland chassis. I have no idea how many passengers they carried, but because passengers could ride he bus while standing, it wasn't really an important question that I needed to answer. KBS buses had two doors, front to enter and rear to exit. And they were slow. They plodded. It took half-an-hour to get to the Central Bus Station in town, which seems a bit of a miracle today when every motorist and their cat want to be first.

Fares were dynamic, with different rates for the rush hour and the off-peak period (0900 - 1500). The shorter the distance travelled, the higher the per-kilometre rate. But even at rush hour, the full fare from Buru to town didn't exceed five shillings, even after the mitumba madness of 1990/1991. KBS had depots everywhere for their buses: Central Bus Station in town, one in Eastleigh, one in Kawangware, one in Kangemi and one in Umoja II. Only Central Bus Station remains; the rest have been converted into "markets" and other forms of "real estate" development.

With Mr Michuki's transport reforms, the last nail was driven in the coffin of public transport sanity. His reforms came at the tail end of a long period of "privatisation". More and more "investors" were licensed to operate PSVs, though KBS retained its monopoly of the Central Bus Station, and the Ambassadeur and Kencom stages. The matatu operators ran their CBD operations from the streets to the east of Tom Mboya Street, especially "commercial", that zone between Archives, Odeon Cinema, Savani's Book Centre and Tea Room. Mr Michuki's "reforms" took away KBS's monopoly and allowed the Transport Licensing Board to issue matatu oaperators with licenses on a per-route basis. KBS briefly put up a fight with its super-popular Shuttle, but by the end of 2003, KBS was bankrupt and taken over by its managers, spawning the crappy KBS Management Company Limited, which is one among the four struggling big-fleet operators: Citi Hoppa, City Shuttle and Double M.

Everyone else, eventually, was corralled into Saccos or Sacco companies. The carefully-established KBS route-system was slowly bastardised. Bus stages were for the squares who didn't know Time is money; if you wanted to alight in the middle of Haile Selassie Avenue, no one would stop you, least of all the makanga, the bus conductor as re-imagined by Beelzebub himself: loud, unkempt, uncouth and totally focussed on separating you from your fare in the fastest, most aggressive way possible.

Back when JJ Kamotho was still Kanu Court Jester No. 1, he led Baba Moi to visit with a group of young, dreadlocked men, keen to re-establish their much-maligned "traditional" ways of worshipping Ngai. By the time Kimeendero was ordering more aggressive tactics against the Mungiki and their top leadership, the Mungiki was the de facto sole authority when it came to the "regulation" of the matatu sector, which now firmly counted the KBS Management Company Limited among its core members just as Citi Hoppa, City Shuttle and Double M undoubtedly were. There being no difference in operating philosophy between matatus and proper bus companies,  the rules have been simplified mightily: you want to operate on a certain route, you pay; you want to operate a particular make or model of bus/matatu, you pay; you want to operate from certain termini or through some bus stages, you pay; you wan to hire a certain calibre of crew, you pay; you want to avoid hiring a certain calibre of crew, you pay; you want to play music on your bus/matatu, you pay. And the Mungiki collects, come rain or shine, hell or high water. And if you don't pay, well, use your imagination.

Commuting is a nightmare. Commuting by bus is the equivalent of playing Russian Roulette in the middle of Uhuru Highway at the peak of rush hour with a loaded AK-47. Save for the commuters who have gun-toting driver-cum-bodyguards and outriders to clear the path for their motorcades, motorists and those who ride the public transport system have little to look forward to in the next five or even ten years. Those of certain vintage remember the stodginess and boredom of the KBS with nostalgia and a little heartache.

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