Traffic on Landhies Road is flowing smoothly when I cross at Nacico Plaza. I have to dash across at the bump, where vehicles are forced to slow down to avoid a gaping pothole. Mali-Mali shops are just opening, dusting off Christmas decorations that are in season, including plastic Christmas trees and lengths of blinking lights made in China – whose one percent Christian population is not seen as enough reason to declare the 25th a public holiday.
The sidewalk is too open and free, quite unlike what I remember, and as I turn towards Muoroto Police Patrol Base, the only crowds noticeable are the usual Gikomba market crowds. Machakos Country Bus is slumbering. The station is packed nose to tail with buses waiting for passengers. In between the purple, blue and yellow buses with screaming names like Nyamira coach, Climax, Nyar-Ugenya, Eldoret Express and Promise – all destined for Western Kenya – sofa sets, beds, mattresses, rolls of chicken wire and stacks of boxes line up, waiting for the long haul upcountry for the Christmas holiday.
A man with his shirt tucked into blue denim jeans attempts to break my stride with his wide grin that reveals a single tooth sticking out of his lower dentures. He grabs my hand in a firm handshake and asks where I am travelling to. This is odd for someone familiar with the chaos at Machakos Country Bus. The touts would be ripping me apart, limb for limb, jostling to get me to board the buses that pay their commission. I tell him I am a journalist here to poke my nose into their business – and he switches to English, splutters a few words, before abandoning the effort.
He tells me the fares are very friendly this time round, that they are charging just Ksh1500 like ‘huko juu’, making reference to transport companies operating from their own private offices in the CBD. Most Nairobi Middle Class travellers prefer going to the village via budget airlines and personal cars and when taking a bus, use the more formal ones with private booking stations within the Central Business District (CBD) like Easy Coach, Ena Bus, The Guardian and the Mombasa-bound buses with offices along River Road. The surge of demand towards Christmas always leads to a hike in fares, sometimes even doubling during peak season. I tried to book a ticket online for our househelp but found all the buses that allowed electronic booking fully booked. I had to physically queue at one of the ticketing offices hoping to secure a ticket. I learnt that the Guardian buses on the Busia route are fully booked through to the end of December, and so is Easy Coach. There was a vacant seat on a Kisumu morning bus for December 20 that would cost me Ksh1650, after which she would have to connect by other means to Busia.
It made me wonder how those who have missed a ticket would travel home. Like any lower Middle-Class man, how I arrive at the village matters, lest the gossipy villagers start speculating about the state of my finances. The option of Machakos Country buses is often frowned upon. My better half NyarSindo says she would rather not use them because she has heard that they are infested with bed bugs. Machakos Country buses are mostly used by the lower classes and, looking at the current high fares, I wonder if they can afford a ticket.
Kevin Otieno Christopher, alias Madoba, who works for Climax Coaches tells me at Machakos Country bus people do not book a ticket; you just show up and haggle for the friendliest prices or available seats.
“Hapa hatuwezi book. Fare inawezaongezeka anytime,” he says.
Following my stare he surmises what I want to ask and answers before I ask. I want to know where the hordes of travelers who typically overrun Machakos Country bus at a time like this are.
“Leo ni tarehe ngapi, 16th?” he whistles through the gap where a few teeth are missing, probably knocked out in a brawl. “Kitambo watu walikua wanajaa kuanzia 11th. Saa hii ninge kua na thao tano but sina kakitu. I think watu wataanza kukuja in four days hivi,” he says.
Madoba says the crowds are thin mainly because buses like Greenline, Eldoret Express and Climax have opened offices in residential estates like Kayole and Kawangware dominated by people from the Western belt, which means they no longer have to come to town to get transport home.
He also thinks Machakos is still smarting from the bad reputation of touts and turn boys harassing travellers and the petty crime that accompanied it in previous years. Madoba says in 2015, they sat all operators down and agreed to end that practice, which explains his modest approach and friendly demeanour when he met me. He says the bad reputation of the past has put scores of travellers off the bus park, despite the changes. Madoba says Machakos is split into two; the main area and a smaller private ‘Uwanjo’ next to Nairobi Retail Market, which he says is more active since it doubles up as a drop-off point for Ukambani matatus. He offers to take me there to see for myself.
Madoba got his name from his love for roots reggae. When I tell him I am a Bob Marley fan he retorts that he fell in love with reggae back in 1982 after watching a Bob Marley tribute performance. He tells me he likes journalists because he wanted his daughter to join the profession but he could not afford the university fee. I think of telling him how lucky he is, given the crisis in the industry that has seen the media industry shrink with declining advertising revenues, which has seen most of my former colleagues losing their jobs. But I think better of it. He says before he came here, he worked for a construction company but returned to the ‘Uwanjo’ in 2018 after his contract lapsed.
“Unajua mwenye Equity bank, James Mwangi? Tulijenga barabara kwake,” he says, swearing to it.
The fifty-year-old says he has four wives, two at home upcountry, one in Kayole and another in Ndumberi. He hopes to open an office in Ndumberi to aggregate customers for Climax bus and join the trend of decentralisation away from the CBD. The abandonment of Machakos can be seen from the idle sellers of the steaming hot tea, Coca Cola cooler boxes, small water bottles and biscuits, stacked on the pavement waiting for the children of the travelling crowds who will need refreshments enroute. All these petty vendors while away the time idly in the sun. We dash across the road disregarding the unused flyovers to access the private stage through a gap in the fence and the activity there is telling. Madoba tells me several buses have already left for Western Kenya. More travellers are crowding around a tout who has a wad of currency notes folded at the spine and spun over his index finger. He writes out tiny tickets and some of the travellers file into a bus whose front wheel is resting on the stub of a hydraulic jack, indicating the high demand for transport here. Madoba makes some inquiries and whistles through the gap in his teeth, before informing me that the fare is Ksh1800 here. He tells me that whilst the main ‘Uwanjo’ is owned by the county government and charges Ksh1000 for parking, the private one charges Ksh2000, hence the higher fares. The vehicles here also fill up faster, explaining the preference of the travellers for it, despite the higher fare.
“Hii ni private, haucheki hata ma CCTV camera?” he adds, indicating small cameras the size of maize cobs mounted at all corners and at the entry points of the station. I promise to return in a weeks’ time when the crowds are more swollen, hopefully having defied the squeeze of inflation for a trip to the village.
When I return, I find Madoba visibly intoxicated dangling inside a shiny grey coat. He is elated to see me and ignores my extended hand in exchange for a bear hug. He looks at me cheekily and then shows me some car keys as if we are in some conspiratorial allegiance. He points out to a private 14 seater vehicle parked next to Muoroto police station and tells me that is his car, he has hired it in anticipation for stranded travellers. Officially he is still helping find customers for Climax but after hours he can make some money on the side.
Madoba tells me that the Climax bus he is helping fill has been there since three in the morning and it is not yet full. Machakos bus has some activity today, a few customers crowd outside Climax booking office, and an attendant there tells me a ticket is going for Ksh2000. There are also more buses. But most are empty.
“Unaona nini, ile statistics unacollect, ni uchumi yetu imezorota,” Madoba slurs on.
He tells me that the attendant is just talking, and that the real fares at Machakos are actually Ksh1800. The private park is now at Ksh2200 but just because the cars fill up faster. He says cars destined for Machakos are usually gone very early but by 9 am on December 19, most are still haggling for customers.
“Kawaida fares hufika Ksh3500, but cheki saa hii, hata sioni ikipita Ksh2000 huku,” he says.
Kenya’s inflation is at 9.5 percent and has stayed above the Central Bank’s 7.5 per cent ceiling since June, worrying investors that the huge prices of commodities will affect sectors such as travel. The high prices have mainly been pushed up by new taxes and higher costs of imports, especially petroleum products currently retailing at an average Ksh146.8 per litre, that has seen the government retain subsidies even though President William Ruto had promised to end state support during his inauguration at Kasarani Stadium. While the surges in the cost of goods seems not to have rattled the Middle Class, from what I gather at Machakos Country bus the lower classes are clearly finding it difficult to afford a trip home, just four months after the August general election, which also incidentally registered dismal voter turnout, partly due to the cost of travel.