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Inside the matatu, public transport vehicle on radar of terrorists

16 December 2013, 15:21 Bedah Mengo

Nairobi - It is 6 a.m. local time in Nairobi. The rush for people to reach their workplaces is palpable.

At a bus terminus on the east of the capital, several public service vehicles (matatus) honk incessantly as drivers' seek to capture the attention of commuters.

Outside the vehicles, touts compete to shout fare to the city in bid to attract passengers.

"Sabini tao. Wale wa haraka sabini tao. Watu wanne pekee," shouts a tout. (KES 70 to town. Those who want to reach fast KES 70 to town. Only four people).

The touts drown each other's voices as they compete to shout the fares. Passengers stream into one of the vehicles one by one.

Some of them are carrying luggage, but no one cares if they are ferrying anything that might be a security threat; not the touts, not fellow passengers.

Soon, the vehicle is filled to capacity and the tout signals the driver to start the journey to town. The driver switches on the music system, adjusts the volume upwards before he zooms the vehicle out of the terminus.

Three young men, one of them smoking cigarette and another chewing miraa (a stimulant) hang at the vehicle's door. The loud music makes some passengers uncomfortable, but no one complains.

After about 100 meters into the journey, one of the touts, who was neither smoking nor chewing miraa, starts to collect fare from passengers. The commuters hand him money, but the obviously tipsy young man does not offer change back.

Some of the passengers complain and beg him for change but he brushes them off. After completing the exercise, he hands a few passengers change and informs a dozen others to wait.

The vehicle is now moving at a snail's pace having run into a massive traffic jam. The two touts and the conductor disappear from the vehicle's door leaving passengers on their own as the vehicle moves slowly.

About 15 minutes after the vehicle "stalled" in the traffic jam, some passengers going in nearby workplaces alight to walk the remaining journey.

With the conductor missing, no one checks whether they entered into the vehicle with luggage and alighted with it or not.

Having covered about 80 meters in over 20 minutes the vehicle encountered the snarl up along Outering Road, the driver gets impatient.

He maneuvers the vehicle out of the traffic jam and starts to drive on the wrong side in a practice that is known as "overlapping".

He drives for over 100 meters on the wrong side of the road before joining his lane to avoid an oncoming vehicle. The driver repeats the same feat once the vehicle passes, covering again about 100 meters.

He then negotiates a roundabout and arrives at a bus terminus along Jogoo Road, where he stops to pick more passengers. There, the three touts who had gone missing call for more passengers.

About 20 people enter into the vehicle yet it had space for only seven. Some of them end up standing on the aisle as the vehicle embarks on the journey to the city center.

The conductor struggles to collect fare as he has to squeeze himself through the standing passengers. Once again, he does not hand back change prompting protests from commuters.

However, instead of apologizing or giving them back their money, he exchanges harsh words with them and when the vehicle once again runs into a traffic jam, he alights and disappears.

Some of passengers complain of the loud music, whose volume the driver had adjusted upwards. However, there is no one to attend to them.

They cannot alight from the vehicle as they have already paid fare and that would be inconveniencing.

To avoid the traffic jam, the driver once again overlaps before making an illegal turn and taking a road that goes through an estate.

The road is less busy, to the relief of commuters but some of them are inconvenienced since they were alighting at termini along the main road.

As the matatu arrives in the city center about two hours later, thanks to overlapping, commuters rush to get out, perhaps counting their blessing as they survived the journey.

However, there is one problem; they have to look for the conductor for their change. The chaos in the industry is making terrorists find matatus a haven to commit their heinous act.

Since Kenya Defense Forces stormed Somalia in 2011 to flash out Al-Shabaab fighters, terrorists have attacked matatus in the capital several times.

The latest incident happened last Saturday in Pangani on the outskirts of the central business district where terrorists planted an explosive in a matatu that exploded killing at least six people and injuring over 30 others.

While the attacks have been directed at other public places that include bars, shopping malls and churches, matatus have become an easy target.

"It is by the grace of God that we usually arrive at our destinations safely and return back home in one piece. It is easier to attack a matutu than any other public place because of the way the vehicles operate," Calvin Onyango, who works as an internal auditor at a pharmaceutical company, said on Sunday.

Since terror attacks started, shopping malls, bars and eateries have enhanced security, frisking people getting into the facilities, but matatus do not.

"The carefree attitude of matatu operators has made it easier for terrorists to strike. They are supposed to frisk people, they do not. They do not care what luggage people carry while getting into the vehicle and most of the time they leave passengers unattended. A terrorist will find such an environment conducive to strike," said Owino, a commuter.

Police have encouraged matatu operators to screen customers, but they do not. The exercise comes with costs, which the operators do not want to bear.

Sadly, threats of terror attacks still hang over Kenya and matatus remain key targets.

- Xinhua

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