Matatu code for drivers this holiday season

Across the 246,757 kilometres of roads crisscrossing Kenya, an unspoken language governs the interactions. Public transport drivers exchange a secret code, utilizing indicator lights, headlamps, and hand gestures to navigate a labyrinth of frequent police stops, where bribes are almost inevitably requested and promptly paid.

Seif Mwanje, a bus driver I encountered on my journey to Kisumu, shared insights into this clandestine communication system. He explained that by flicking headlamps twice at an approaching matatu and swishing the wipers, the driver would understand that there are no traffic police officers for an extended stretch. Additionally, if he signaled with his index and middle fingers pointing downwards after flicking the lights, it would convey that ‘two blue-uniforms’ (code for regular police) are ahead.

To indicate an upcoming roadblock, one would need to flash the headlights interchangeably while moving his arm left to right, mimicking a seesaw motion. Mwanje notes that if one extended all five fingers outside the driver’s window, waving them up and down, he would be conveying perhaps the most crucial message – there’s a full crackdown ahead.

He explained, “Whenever there is a crackdown, have you seen matatus ever getting caught? It’s just you guys, driving personals that get caught because you do not know the language of the road. Drivers communicate all the time, but instead of words, we use our sign language.”

Mwanje initiated this conversation after I turned down the radio, serving as my guide since I picked him up at the Homa Bay-Kendu Bay junction. Unfamiliar with the road, I used it for the first time, relying on general directions to reach Homa Bay, seek directions to the road leading to Kendu Bay, continue straight through Katito before branching off to the left onto the Kisumu-Kisii road, eventually joining the Nairobi-Uganda highway, also known as A104.

He was a bus driver needing to reach Busia, hitchhiking to save on his allowance. He envisioned exchanging conversation and offering me directions in return for a free ride. Mwanje informed me that he drives a bus from Mombasa through Tanzania and then returns via public transport to Busia. From there, he drives his bus all the way back down to the coast.

To demonstrate his familiarity with the road, Mr Mwanje mentioned that he knows the precise distance between several towns, providing figures that I cannot recall. He asserted that he monitors his vehicle odometer, measuring the exact distance in kilometers between Kampala, through Busia to Nairobi. He is acquainted with the distances between every town in detail and asserts that he can estimate the exact time it takes to travel those distances.

Read also: From roads to noodles soup; how China is shifting to ‘small is good’

He offers a magic trick to provide evidence for his claim. After performing some mental calculations, he asserts that based on his estimation of the speed at which he keenly observed me drive, it would take me four to five hours to reach Nairobi from Kisumu. As he accurately surmised, I am one of those people who aren’t too keen on timing their driving, and thus I could neither dispute nor validate what he was saying. After impressing his audience of one, he concluded with a grand ending, stating that he knows the road so intimately that he could pinpoint every road bump.

In a decent country, one would expect road signs for that. However, on most Western Kenya roads that traverse vast areas, there are long spans of unmarked sections. Road bumps, like goosebumps, tend to appear unexpectedly along these roads, and one must stay alert to reach their destination safely. With such foresight, one would understand the influence of Mr Mwanje and how he could turn me into a rally driver, exceeding the road speed limits.

Expanding on his extensive knowledge, he adds that he knows where the police stops are and where they conceal themselves with speed guns to monitor drivers exceeding speed limits. He mentions that they primarily monitor if you exceed 50 kilometers an hour within town precincts, turning the law into an opportunity for collecting bribes.

Mwanje explains that matatu and bus drivers, like him, have developed an elaborate sign language to navigate the numerous police stops along the roads, avoiding paying bribes for minor infractions. Matatus signal each other before reaching police roadblocks to evade getting caught driving too fast or overtaking in hazardous spots and, at times, to determine how significant a bribe to prepare in advance. The sign language serves as a painful reminder of a government that acts like an agent of exploitative extraction, levying taxes for the use of its infrastructure formally through levies and informally through police bribery channels.

Roads also function as political tools, allocated to regions based on their proximity to the center of power. In Kenya’s Nyanza region, which has largely remained in the opposition, neglect is evident, with significant portions of the area suffering from deplorable infrastructure.

Taking the Mbita-Sindo road, where I had departed with specific directions on how to navigate my way to Kisumu, and which was scheduled to be tarred for the first time later this year by former President Uhuru Kenyatta. The 74 kilometers from Mbita, Sindo, and Kiabuya all the way to the Sori region were supposed to get a Kes2.9 billion facelift as a flagship project by Mr. Kenyatta. When I drove over a 21-kilometer stretch on this road, the construction had yet to commence. The section is atrocious. The tarmac is chipped and potholed in sections, forcing you to zigzag all the way as you drive.

Where the bad tarmac ends, a rough murram surface rattles the car, rocks poking out of the lunar surface like overturned nails for stretches that only allow you to come to terms with 10 kilometers an hour. Ugly gulleys cut across sections of the poorly-drained road. It takes two hours to do the stretch, worsening when it rains, when one is assured of getting stuck in the mud or swerving into the ditches.

After a grueling drive that would qualify for a Rhino Charge test, the lake pops into view all the way to Sindo. The shoreline is dotted with boats that are docked like a war fleet. Huge trailer trucks leave the beach town laden with frozen tilapia, the poor infrastructure adding to the cost of the highly perishable product. There are resorts here that make up the hidden and unexplored Western tourist circuit, including gems such as the Ruma National Park where rare gazelles roam, and which is home to hyenas, leopards, and baboons. The way the little town slopes from the bouldered hills that stretch into the lake like an embrace, circling towards an island and extended shores is a scene straight out of a Game of Thrones-type epic movie.

At night, the fishermen light up the lake with pearls, hundreds of shining lights that put the sky above to shame. They use the light to attract insects and draw out the fish, which feed on the stupefied insects. And these illustrious people, from whom I had gone to seek out NyarSindo, say that their economic potential lies latent and underexploited due to the distance decay induced by the government, which puts politics above the region’s economic potential. Where there are roads, the cost of doing business is further inflated by the systemic corruption overseen by the police.

Hii area ya Kisumu ndio transport iko juu sana hapa Kenya,” Mwanje says in despair, “distance kidogo tu na wanakulipisha Kes300.”

I ask him if the unusual number of police stops collecting bribes from matatus like some form of mafia-like protection fee is to blame. He does not think so. He thinks that the proud culture of Luos as exemplified in their high-end pimped-up vehicles is to blame for the inflated costs.

[email protected]

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.