Matatu Mayhem

25 Jun

I’ve seen some crazy stuff while using public transportation over the years (I’m looking at you, homeless man who urinated on the C-train!) but Ugandans seem to have a knack for doing exceptionally mind-boggling things…

8:00 AM – A rattling, sputtering, Kampala-bound Matatu pulls up to the petrol station. I squeeze into a back seat, next to a man with a baby and a woman with a hairdo that defies gravity. On the back window of the mini-bus, blue and silver letters proclaim “Jesus is Coming”. I ponder all of the possible ways that this phrase could be interpreted, as we wait for more passengers.

8:05 AM – Spaces start to be filled in strange ways, but I’m not fazed. I’ve been here for over a month, and I think I’ve got it all figured out:

[Man in a Uganda Cranes shirt] What the…?! You’re going to bring along a chicken, and stuff it under the seat for the whole journey? Ok, sure. Maybe you went home to the village to visit your parents, and they insisted on giving you a chicken. Now you need to get the bird back to your family in Kampala somehow. I would rather sit beside a live chicken than a bloody, decapitated chicken…

[Matatu Driver] What the…?! You’re going to stuff enormous bags of charcoal under the seats, so that nobody has leg-room? Ok, sure. You might as well have something to sell when you arrive in Kampala, and make a bit of extra money. Besides, your passengers will put up with any discomfort you inflict upon them because they have no other means of getting to the city.

[Old Woman] What the…?! You’re going to let people cram you into the front row with 5 other passengers? You’re like 180 years old! Ok, sure. Old people need to travel too, and clearly Ugandan women are tougher than I am. But seriously, lady, you deserve a little respect…

There is an interesting sort of logic that applies to these situations, it’s just a form of logic that is not often employed in Canada.

9:00 AM – The matatu lurches, and begins to roll through town. We pick up a few more passengers, somehow squeeze them into the already full seats, and then we’re off!

9:30 AM – The ride has been going smoothly, and I’m nicely settled in. Then things get weird. The matatu turns off the main road, into a village. I assume that we’re just picking up some more passengers. False assumption. We keep going and going along the tiny, red-dirt road without an apparent reason. As the road shrinks, my confusion grows; I’m pretty sure this “road” was never meant to accommodate anything wider than a wheelbarrow. And I’m convinced that my tailbone will break if we don’t start slowing down for the potholes!

The woman beside me glances over and laughs when she sees my face (I must have looked pretty befuddled). “It’s a shortcut,” she states.

“Aha! I seeeee!” I say, as if that explains everything…

Branches and leaves scrape against both sides of the mini-bus, providing an up-close encounter with the local crops. Suddenly we emerge into a cleared area with a small collection of huts, and I have a clear view out of the window again. A little girl stands by the road, sucking a piece of sugarcane. Her eyes widen and her jaw drops a little, as if she can’t possibly comprehend why a matatu would be driving past her home. “My sentiments exactly,” I mutter to myself. The next instant, we’re back amidst the foliage (probably ruining some nice farmers’ banana trees).

9:45 AM – The little road re-connects with the highway just outside of Masaka town. Maybe it really was a shortcut, but none of the passengers seem particularly happy about it.


12:30 PM – We reach the outskirts of Kampala. The driver pulls over at a gas station, and most of the men climb out to relieve themselves in a nearby maize field. A group of teenage boys runs up with jugs of water and sponges, to wash the mini-bus while we wait. Grimy water splashes through the gaps around the window, directly onto my face, and I’m feeling pretty bitter about this whole experience.

1:00 PM – The happy ending comes. An incredibly nice lecturer from Makere University gets off at the same stop as me. He shows me the way to the College Inn, and cracks jokes about how ridiculous bus drivers can be. I check into a room, drop my things, and spend a whole 5 minutes washing my face. Cleanliness, silence, and personal space are glorious things.

4 Responses to “Matatu Mayhem”

  1. Annie Wang July 4, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Haha Julia this post was hilarious! I’ve heard of a story of a JF getting peed on by a goat while on the bus. What does a Matatu look like? It sounds bigger than your standard taxi.

    • juliamilner July 4, 2013 at 8:47 am #

      Oh boy! I will stay away if I see any goats! I tried to insert a photo, but I guess it didn’t work… they’re white vans meant to seat 14, but they usually squeeze 18+ people in

  2. gonnagotaghana July 5, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    after much delay I found your blog! I can totally picture your face when you said “I seeeeee”

  3. Bryson Siemens July 12, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    Great post! And here was thinking the late night trains in Calgary were sketchy…

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