News about road accidents in Kenya is not news anymore. Reports about loss of life, damage of property and tears from friends and relatives due to road accidents saturate the news media and have almost become a norm and a regular part of everyday living, or dying, if you like.
So many unfulfilled dreams, unlived lives and unused ideas go to the grave as we watch.
Many of these cases involve public service vehicles; buses and matatus as well as lorries and personal vehicles. Some of these get mangled beyond recognition and are completely written off. You can imagine what happens to the bodies within.
My mind goes back a few months. I’m travelling from Nairobi to Mombasa by bus and rather than sleep or read the book in my hands, I choose to have a chat with one of the drivers, just a quest to find out more about our public transport service, especially the buses. What has been his experience? What explains the behavior we see on our roads?
Amin has been a bus driver with two bus companies in Kenya, namely Coast Bus and Modern Coast Express, he lets me know. He has over 29 years experience and reckons that it has not been easy. “Getting jobs in Kenya is hard and even after all the hard work, it is very rare to get a good employer, especially in this transport industry,” he says.
We chit chat and I explain my concern for the increased road accidents in Kenya and he tells me, there is more than meets the eye. “This is a tough calling. When you are a driver, you have to be prepared for a hard life, long working hours, corrupt policemen, complaints from the passengers who make all sorts of accusations concerning our driving, complaints from our families for not being there when they need us and of course yelling from our wives who think we have become lousy on bed,” Adds Amin.
I can hear the frustration in his voice as he narrates his ordeal. I feel the pain. “Ukiwa dereva, hufiki hata siku moja,mpaka ufe, hufiki. (As a driver, you never get to your destination until you die). All the passengers will get to their destination, but not the driver. You just left Nairobi, soon you will be in Mombasa. You may choose to sleep or read a book as you were doing,” he says glancing at the book in my hands then continues, “But as of me, I’m always busy driving and watching over your life, to ensure you get to your destination safely.”
He lets me know that for the 29 years he has been in this industry, he has never been involved in an accident. “Have you ever asked yourself why drivers hit each other head on? Doesn’t it feel strange to you? Does it? The truth is, not everyone on the road is normal. Many Kenyans are mentally retarded though they do not know it. I don’t blame anyone, it is life, too much frustrations. Ndio maisha ya siku hizi. (That’s life nowadays),” he adds with a sigh.
He explains that the challenges of our day-to-day life, is what makes many drivers lose it. The family demands so much from you, the society too expects a lot and so does your employer and passengers, who are never thankful even after you drive them safely to their destination. Only one out of 100 passengers will remember to say “thank you.” This hits home hard. I try to figure out how many times I have remembered to say thank you to the driver for having driven safely? Not many of us do so. On getting to our destination, we are so fast to rush out of the bus.
“We lack motivation for this kind of job. Our employers are so concerned about the state of their vehicles and how much money we are making for them. It shouldn’t surprise you that after an accident, an employer will call and the first thing he will ask is “How is my vehicle? Has it been damaged? Have you done a thorough check?” This is a man who knows that for sure you were carrying over 40 precious lives as the accident happened.” He says. He admits that such an attitude is very demoralizing and demotivating.
He says for a long time he has been concerned that most employers are not concerned about the drivers’ welfare. Many work long hours without shifts. In his case, he drives from Mombasa to Nairobi (about 8 hours) and then takes a 3 hour break before he starts the journey back to Mombasa.
With such a hectic daily routine, he says many have no time for their families and wives at home. He says that their wives don’t understand why they seem disinterested in them. “The truth is, after 16 hours of sitting on the bus, with full concentration, the back aches, aches so strangely, the legs too get tired and numb, so sex will be the last thing in your mind. But our wives don’t get this. Many feel very frustrated and complain and lay all their anger on us, but we know for sure, that yes, they are sexually deprived,” says Amin.
I ask him what has kept him so long in the industry, despite all the setbacks. Could it be the paycheck? “What paycheck? A bus driver, one with no record of road accidents and one with a huge span of experience like me, earns Ksh 20,000 and if you are so lucky, you will earn up to Ksh. 30,000. But let it be known to you that, none and I mean no driver gets this amount of money at the end of the day.” He insists as I probe further.
He explains that many drivers tend to pay for small offenses on their own, have to occasionally bribe the Kenyan police and of course have to pay for all the complaints that get recorded at the office by ungrateful passengers, as he calls them. So what really keeps him in such a job?
“There are no jobs in Kenya. There are many people looking for jobs and every other day, there are so many kurutu (fake) drivers sending in their CVs. So should you raise any complaints with your employer, you can be sure his response will be something like, ‘Kwenda kabisa, nenda, hata mimi nimechoka na wewe. Nina watu wengi wanatafuta kazi kama hii’ (Go, I am equally tired of your constant complaints, there are so many people looking for this job).”
With such a response, he says, you immediately think of your family back home, your children who are now out of school because of lack of school fees and your frustrated wife, so you just have to go back hoping that tomorrow will be a better day. This is the only hope that keeps me in my job.
He informs me that they get a meal allowance of only Kshs. 1000. “Many times we forego lunch. Sometimes if we are lucky, we pick up passengers along the way and from them we get something extra, but remember we get reported on this by the passengers, so by the time we get to Mombasa, our boss already has this information. Picking up passengers after leaving the main station is illegal. So once reported, we have to hand over the money. If not, then we are lucky and use this for our lunch.
By now I feel quite enlightened and I hope you are too. Before we rush to raise our complaints and blame the drivers we should journey into their shoes and try to understand what they go through every day to get us to our destinations.
You can be sure as I arrived in Mombasa, I remembered to thank the driver for safe driving. Then, I left the bus with a clearer picture and a note to myself to be more thankful all the time I travel by public service transport.
“When you gamble with safety, you bet your life!”