As a young woman, being able to go out (at night) without needing permission from my parents was one coming-of-age privilege I deeply longed for. And so when the time came for me to explore nightlife, I relished in the freedom that came with it. Luckily for me, I am the youngest of all my female maternal cousins, with a nine year age gap between myself and the sister I follow. Naturally, this guaranteed lots of great advice when I started clubbing.
My cousins and sister echoed one another on two pieces of advice. First, always have extra cash on you, at least 1,000 bob whenever you go out (even if your date has offered to settle the bill and taxi fare), enough to pay for transport home in case things go South. And yes, things do go South at times and one is left stranded, and if you are a woman, this is definitely not a situation you want to be in. The second piece of advice was always have a trusted cab guy who you can call to come pick you up even before you leave the house for your night out.
These pieces of advice I got from my relatives proved to be life savers, bearing in mind that at the time, it was way before the era of taxi hailing apps and we had to rely on independent taxi drivers. Back then, we often felt taxi rides were quite expensive, but once you had established a business relationship with a particular cabbie, they could charge you reasonably and could be trusted not to try anything fishy.
That knowledge would go on to shape my relationship with taxis to date. Along the way, and with growth and maturity, I also developed my own safety mechanisms. For example, I do not sit in the front seat next to the driver. I figure that I am much safer in my own space at the back. It may sound silly to some, but I find myself being so strict with this rule because I want to maintain some sort of professionalism throughout the ride and by creating some distance, I minimise the chances of a taxi driver getting too comfortable, and possibly misbehaving.
Thankfully, I have not had extremely bad experiences with taxi drivers aside from the ones I could handle, and I pray it continues to be so. If anything, I have encountered some, who safely got me back home after a night out and waited with the car’s lights on until I was safely within the vicinity of the hostel or the house. These occurrences often touched my heart, that even when I asked the driver to leave, they would still insist that they wanted to wait until I had gone in safely. I never forgot such instances as it will always serve as a reminder to me that there are still good people left in the world.
However, the coming of taxi hailing apps to Kenya signalled a new dawn in the business. It now meant that it was easier to get a taxi, you were assured that the drivers were vetted seeing that they are working within an established app; the vehicles were in good condition and to top it all, it was way cheaper compared to the prices we had begrudgingly grown accustomed to. And though there was some resistance from some independent taxi drivers in the beginning, it would only be a matter of time when this would cool down and different apps would begin operating in the country.
My first time using a taxi hailing app in Nairobi was around 2016. I hailed an Uber and the driver, still basking in the novelty of it and the promise of a brighter future for himself and his family, spent a huge chunk of our ride telling me how the app worked and how it had since benefited his family. But that was then.
Fast forward to 2021 and the narrative changed completely. Drivers were growing increasingly tired of both low and frequently discounted rates the apps were setting, and did not hesitate pouring their woes to clients. I had just moved to Mombasa that year when drivers of a particularly notorious taxi hailing app (social media is always abuzz with yet another bizarre if not life-threatening incident involving its drivers) decided to go on strike over unfavourable ride pricing. It was the last time I would use that particular app since I had grown increasingly frustrated over time by the grumpy attitude which often escalated to rude behaviour by their drivers, directed at clients.
And while I had genuinely been sympathetic in the beginning to the plight of these taxi drivers who had mouths to feed and still am, I simply could not condone bad service. I reverted back to the tried and tested technique, that of establishing a business relationship with an independent taxi driver that ensured you enjoyed reliable service at a price you could agree on.
Using that particularly scandalous app had become so bad in Nairobi that complaints surfaced regularly on X (formerly Twitter) on how drivers would harass their clients. From the nature of the complaints, it became evident that women were not safe at all hailing taxis from the said app. The cases that made it to social media platforms included but were not limited to demands for higher fees than indicated on the app, sexual harassment and even kidnappings. What may have saved some of the women clients was that they recorded some of these incidents on their phones, but for those who were unlucky matters escalated to the point of getting the police involved. Death, or some severe form of harm, never seemed too far away in these cases.
It so happens that whenever these abuses hit the internet, the taxi hailing apps in question are forced to respond – not always immediately – by suspending the driver in question, always a case of doing too little too late. It also goes without saying that judging from all the complaints that had previously and frequently been shared publicly regarding the earlier mentioned problematic app, it is highly likely the app never took firm and immediate action against rogue drivers back then. It is this inaction that must have made the wayward and actually criminal drivers to exhibit such dangerous mannerisms while in the line of duty, being fully aware that there would be little or no repercussions for their actions.
Granted, the actions of wayward taxi drivers who have no qualms about giving bad service shouldn’t be used to paint the entire industry negatively. However, it should be the much needed and unfortunately delayed motivator for stakeholders to get back to the drawing board and remedy the situation, to ensure all clients and not only women, enjoy the services of taxi hailing apps and that drivers have job satisfaction. Failure to do this, women and other at risk demographics will continue to be easy targets.
On 24 August 2019, 19 year old South African student at the University of Cape Town, Uyinene Mrwetyana, walked into a Post Office to collect a parcel. She never made it out alive as she was raped and murdered, right inside the Post Office, by a Post Office worker. This heinous crime could have been avoided had the South African Post bosses, who had knowledge of the employee’s criminal record for over a year, terminated his contract as soon as his past came to light. South African newspaper, The Sunday Times, also reported that Uyinene’s attacker had previously failed a vetting process yet still carried on working at the Post Office.
The tragic story of Uyinene and others who have met a painful and unnecessary demise, just because those entrusted to do due diligence failed to be thorough, should always serve as a reminder that in whichever area of the service industry, the need for proper vetting of individuals cannot be gainsaid. Taxi hailing apps cannot be an exception to the rule.