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Relic ‘face-me’ matatu still in business 26 years down the road – PHOTOS


Decades ago they were the face of rural transport in Kenya. Nicknamed “face-me”, they were matatus designed for passengers to sit in two rows facing each other.

Passengers had nowhere else to look at but the person sitting opposite them. Sometimes, obscuring that view would be excess passengers clinging on horizontal reinforced metal bar running along the roof of the passenger cabin.

OLDEST PSV

They also had the annoying habit of making frequent and random stops to pick up and drop passengers.

The “face-me” matatus have since been phased out, but in Nyeri, one vehicle has defied the test of time, plying the Nyeri-Kirurumi-Kinunga route for 26 years.

At the Kamakwa stage in Nyeri Town, the Nation finds the blue matatu. Although it is no longer a public service vehicle (PSV), it is still operational and carries luggage on the same route.

Mzee Karuga Kiraguri seated inside his matatu in Nyeri on July 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI
Mzee Karuga Kiraguri seated inside his matatu in Nyeri on July 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI

It is arguably the oldest PSV in the county, but has kept going thanks to skillful mechanics who mostly improvise while scrounging for spare parts.

Mr Karuga Kiraguri, who is in his mid-60s, is the owner of the vehicle, which even in its old age, looks impressive.

He traces his journey in the matatu industry back to 1993 when he started off as a conductor of his own vehicle because he did not know how to drive.

MATATU’S PRICE

Before then, he had worked as an off-loader for lorries that would transport logs from the Aberdares to Nyeri Town.

After partnering with a friend, and lots of savings later, they bought the vehicle at Sh130,000.

“We had savings of Sh100,000 and took a loan of Sh30,000 to finance the purchase,” he says.

Since he was not a trained driver, he took up the job of a tout while his friend became the driver.

Matatu conductors rest in Mzee Karuga Kiraguri’s matatu in Nyeri on July 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI
Matatu conductors rest in Mzee Karuga Kiraguri’s matatu in Nyeri on July 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI

They soon parted ways and Kiraguri retained the vehicle. He learned how to drive in the process, and acquired a licence in 1994.

While many believe the matatu should now be considered a relic fit only for the museums, some still believe the jalopies have a place in the public transport system. Obviously, Kiraguri falls in the latter group.

But it wouldn’t be easy sailing for these matatus as they would face stiff competition from new entrants in the rural transport business.

MICHUKI RULES

Modern vehicles, which have higher speeds, as well as low-capacity vehicles like the Toyota Sienta and the infamous Probox, now account for significant share of the matatu business in the rural areas.

“No matter how bad a day is, it is important to always be patient and take good care of your vehicle for passengers will always come. Proper servicing and repair is important to maintain the long life of a vehicle,” reckons the man, whom neighbours describe as disciplined and social.

The 2003 “Michuki rules”, which required every PSV to have speed governors, seat belts and a yellow line were the beginning of the end to his passenger transport business.

Matatu conductors rest in Mzee Karuga Kiraguri’s matatu in Nyeri on July 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI
Matatu conductors rest in Mzee Karuga Kiraguri’s matatu in Nyeri on July 1, 2019. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI

He spent around Sh18,000 trying to ensure his vehicle met the required standards, but he never got the pass. His beloved vehicle was forced to stay off the road for three months.

It was at this point that he decided to change it from a passenger vehicle to a cargo vehicle.

Looking at his matatu, Kiaraguri says he is not planning on changing his vehicle for another because he prides himself in it.

The transport business has enabled him to educate his six children, he says.