Ideas & Debate

Public transport sector a big mess

Our public transport sector is a travesty by
Our public transport sector is a travesty by global standards. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Human beings are remarkably straightforward at base with no-one thriving on unfair treatment, irrational bullying or wanton damage. It triggers trauma, which is slowly becoming more understood as all our human sciences continue to develop.

Overall, trauma is caused when things are so painful we cannot accommodate them in our normal way of being or of seeing the world. We get stressed, anxious, and will often turn to coping devices, including one that is called dissociation, which sees us closing down our feelings and moving into a dream world, where we are not getting battered. However, nor are we protecting ourselves once dissociation sets in.

Another coping device for trauma is substance abuse, be it drinking, smoking or chewing miraa. There are many others too: but across almost all of them, a shared feature is that they stop humans from functioning properly. Yet it is amazing just how trauma can be triggered for each of us.

It seems obvious that if we lose a child, or get involved in a violent heist, we will be traumatised. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that we can also be traumatised by our leaders being irrational, or by endemic bad behaviour as routine as unfairness in the workplace, or a family member diminishing us.

Now, who can stop every mean family member in Kenya from being mean today – no-one can. The therapists of the world seem almost in agreement that the only solution is to move away from the mean ones and get out of their line of fire


But when we have whole sectors of our society that are traumatising everyone every day, and that can be corrected, then we do have reason to wonder who wins from such inaction?

A case in point: the matatu industry. Now, let’s be clear, our public transport sector is a travesty by global standards. The vast majority of the citizens of the world, our neighbours in Tanzania included, and, in fact, most humans, can get to work for a fixed fare they pay once. Not us.

In Kenya, public transport isn’t like that, but is an opening and closure to every day mired in bullying, theft, bad practice, misery and adversity over which we have no control at all.

A bad day, bad matatu will see every passenger tipped off midway unless they pay their fare a second time. For employees without the extra cash on hand, the day begins late to work, in trouble, sometimes calamitously. Indeed, as the pay-again-or-off moment emerges, how deep must be the head-in-hands moment of many of those travellers?

Likewise, day after day, fares move on rain, or on whim, and yet what do we ever do about it?

Every day, we see police pulling aside every matatu that passes, checking for one thing or another that they will then need to ‘waive’ on being given the appropriate ‘incentive’, thereby supporting their own households.

But none of all this policing seems to ever be pointed at protecting consumers, with sight apparently lost completely of why we pay taxes to support a police force.

Instead, we stare year after year, and despite some significant long-ago steps forward by key ministers on noise and Sacco ownership and such like, with the matatu sector as a consumer roulette never knowing how badly our day will be wrecked by this matatu today.

It’s a ‘the world as it is’ starting point - filled with effectively breached contract and mistreatment - that we then carry into every meeting, contract, assumption, decision and action, which is very grave indeed in its implications. For when the world is unfair, many of each of us become unfair, it’s like a virus.

Yet if we took one simple stand, be it government, be it county, to put fares on the side of matatus and deregister any Sacco fleet abusing the fixed prices, we would change our world to a fairer place, where most staff would do a better job, with better will, better concentration, and cleaner hearts.

Or we can leave matatu fare taking and consumer treatment unregulated some more, just to make life as hard as we possibly can, for good measure.