On Saturday I happened to have been in a matatu from Thika. I had sat in the front seat, next to the driver. At some point, the driver told me I looked familiar. I acted snobbish saying in my mind, “That’s an old pick up line. Who does that?” He probably noted that I was cold on him and didn’t continue with the discussion. He didn’t have any ill intentions, as I would later discover.

Something interesting but usual happened on the way. When we were almost getting to the place the traffic police officers park during patrols, he took out a hundred shilling note, folded it very nicely and put it in the handle of the driver’s door. I have always been agitated by this behavior that has become common in Kenya. The police officer came and pretended to check the insurance stickers, then came to speak to the driver and eventually took the folded note.

At that point, I thought of engaging the driver on the issue. (I was familiar to him after all 😛 ) Why would he willingly give the police officer money yet he had not even done enough inspection of the matatu, and so no mistake had been found? He told me that matatus would never be found without having broken any rules. There will always be a scratched mirror, non-renewed insurance covers or any other kind of mistake. I further asked him why he didn’t wait to bribe the police after he had inspected the car, and only did beforehand, without any negotiations taking place. He told me how the police were unfair. They benefit from every situation and in such a situation they would overcharge you.

I stopped the conversation with the driver at that. But I carried on with it in my mind.(Am afraid I think too much sometimes). Do you see the kind of game played here? The matatu guys are willing to part with a hundred shillings at every place they find the traffic police so that they will be allowed to get away with their irresponsibility in servicing and doing vehicle maintenance. It is like saying, “My matatu’s screen is broken, I have no speed governor and haven’t renewed my insurance. I know the passengers are at stake, but it’s okay. You can have this one hundred shillings to allow me to move on with my journey.”

For the officer who accepts the bribe, it’s like saying, “It’s okay. You don’t have to keep spending a lot in servicing and doing vehicle maintenance. You can just give me a hundred shillings, and it will be okay. Never mind about the passengers.” So the passengers are traded for one hundred shillings. Imagine! One hundred shillings for fourteen or more passengers!

And so really, who is to blame? The drivers blame the officers for being gluttons and taking advantage of them. If I had talked to an officer, he would have probably blamed the matatu guys for having too many mistakes and not observing traffic rules. The authorities would probably blame their officers for not adhering to the state standards and the code of conduct. The passengers would blame the drivers as well as the officers for putting their lives at stake. At the end of the day, we’d all blame each other.

I think we are all to blame. The passenger who witnesses bribing, the driver who never takes his car for maintenance and has to keep bribing his way out, the officer who selfishly asks and accepts a hundred shillings, putting passengers at stake and the authorities who are lax in following up with people who defy the rules.

That leaves me with an unanswered question. What am I to do? Start telling the driver about Hesabika- stand up and be counted? Read the officer’s number and report it to wherever? Rally the passengers in the vehicle to resist the behavior? Maybe these are all viable solutions. Bottom line, it sucks to see this happen right on your nose.

And as a friend would say, how do these officers feel while using money gotten from ‘selling’ passengers? I don’t think there is a blessing in doing this. To us all, let’s stand up and be counted. We could talk to these drivers and tell them that if they were responsible for doing what is required of them, there would be less trouble. These small ways can be of impact in big ways.