For long, the Matatu sector has been male-dominated, in operation and ownership. Societal outlook on gender roles and the nature of the industry, deemed as one for the aggressive and unrefined, deterred many women, who were presumed not to have the fortitude to withstand the rigours of such work. However, changing values and perception have flipped the narrative, giving more and more women access to the ‘man’s job’. As Njange Maina found out, the entrant of female workers in the industry paints a portrait of determination among, other things.
The furrowed, rickety and congested roads of Nairobi are their office. It is no longer a man’s job, they affirm. From being drivers, bus conductors, and even stage attendants, brave women have gone against the grain, facing a relatively tough field with nononsense demeanour and a hardworking mentality. For some, it is the employment of their feminine skills and character as competitive advantage, which they say puts them ahead of their male colleagues. Yet, for others, a gender fight to put food on the table.
Jane Kanini, a 32-year-old single mother of two, could not watch her family languish in poverty with an opportunity staring at her. She is a conductor for Orokise buses that ply Nairobi-Ongata Rongai route. She has been a conductor since 2011. “I was not happy with my previous job, I quit and went to Kenya Bus Services (KBS) to apply for a job as a conductor,” narrates Jane, whose bus is now half full moments into our conversation. In a few minutes, Jane will be departing to Ongata Rongai.
At KBS, Jane trained for two months, after which she was allowed to operate a bus as a lone conductor. Later, she moved to her current job, where she has been for the last four years. She is reluctant to divulge much with regards to her pre-matatu job, only describing it as indecent, which compelled her to change for the better. Her determination in the current job has made her accomplish her dreams. Jane has to feed and educate her two children, aged seven and three years, who know her as a provider and not a matatu conductor or donda as they are popularly referred to on the streets. She’s proud to be able to give her family a decent life, and manage to send some cash to her elderly parents in the village.
“I believe that a woman can do, even better, what a man can do. I have great plans and in five years’ time, I will be different,” she says. At Kencom bus station, the place is abuzz with chorus-like chanting; “Kenyatta-Kenyatta-Upperhill!” Among the voices is a distinct alto, that catches our attention. It’s the voice of Mercy Mbacho, popularly known as Musoo among her colleagues and frequent customers. Musoo, 29, is a single mother of one and a conductor of Citi Hoppa buses. She has been a bus conductor and a security guard for the last three years. Her job involves filling the bus with passengers and frisking female ones. On her own will, she applied for the security job at Citi Hoppa, which upon getting, she has passionately done and can perform other tasks besides that. In increasing unemployment, Musoo took the opportunity that presented itself, going against the odds, and putting her all into it. Her strong determination to raise her child and raise enough capital to start a business gave her strength to overcome her fears. “I believe there are no jobs specifically for men or women,” she says.
At home, Musoo has a house girl to assist in raising her five-year old son. She recounts an incident one time when her child commented; “Mum I saw you shouting ‘beba, beba, beba’,” which caught her by surprise, and she explained come societal norms and out of her own volition, applied for the job. Her family and close friends questioned the move, but could not change her mind. She couldn’t allow traditional biases against females deny her a job opportunity. “My family could not understand why I chose to do this, but since there was no better job for me, I had no option,” says Wambui, who is now 10 years in the job, and was at some point a driver.
“I started in 2007 as a bus conductor,” she narrates. “I worked as a bus conductor for four years and was later promoted to an inspector, which I did for two years, after which I went for maternity leave. When I came back, my former position had been filled,” she recounts.
Wambui became a bus conductor once again and holds the post to date, once in a while getting behind the wheel, thanks to her driving experience. She describes her husband as an understanding and supportive man. They met on the job, as they work for the same company. At one point, the couple attempted to venture out on their own, and invested in the industry after noting its potential. They bought a used Isuzu bus, but the business collapsed after the bus ran into countless engine fails and was unable to sustain itself. The bus now lies useless somewhere, and she cautions against buying a used matatu for transport business.
“Our bus was ever faulty, and consumed so much money on repairs. It’s now a decrepit, and I’d advise anyone to never buy a used bus for matatu business,” she warns. Nonetheless, her dream of starting a transport business remains valid as new, and she hopes to save enough for a new bus. She says that she has learned the trade, and can comfortably do the business. Besides, her husband is also in the industry, and together, they can build an empire if they put in enough effort.
At the lively commercial Tom Mboya Street a young, short and beautiful Esther Wambui aka Mama Yao is among the many dondas using a series of repetitive calls and convincing yells to attract commuters. The 26-year-old is a bus conductor for Marimba buses that ply the NairobiKahawa West route, dropping a hint of femininity against the male-dominated backdrop. It is two years since she joined the business. She is a single mother of two. One look at her, and a male passenger can be swayed to board her matatu. “Nowadays, many people prefer female conductors as they are respectful,” shares Mama Yao, as she ushers a passenger in.
Also, she finds that, more people heed a female voice compared to the customary male one, a thing that gives her competitive advantage among competitors. We don’t get to chat for long before it’s time for her to dandia and take off, as the matatu is already fully loaded. Many passengers dislike being the first in a bus, which compels some conductors to employ the kupiga seti tactic to dupe customers that there are at least some people already in the bus, hence lure them. Mama Yao’s mat, if our momentary observation is anything to go by, gets passengers whether there is someone in or not. My family could not understand why I chose to do this, but since there was no better job for me, I had no option to the boy that all is done to raise him. She has grown in the job and says that she is well conversant with the ropes. “I have become a pro in this job, and I can alight a speeding bus on a highway,” she says.
Musoo notes that in addition to the usual work challenges presented by any other job, there are, expectedly, more that come with being a female bus conductor. This, owing to social attitudes about gender roles and the nature of the industry, deemed as one for the unrefined and uncouth, even indecent. Some passengers disrespect her for her career choice, and some even use cruel words against her. She complains that county council askaris also see female conductors as soft targets for intimidation and may harass them for no reason. “A city council askari can arrest and detain you the whole day without a valid reason,” she laments.
Approximately 10 metres from Musoo is 34-year-old Mercy Wambui, a wife and mother of two. Wambui also works as a bus conductor at Citi Hoppa. Her husband is a bus driver in the same company. Their children, aged eight and five years, are in school. Wambui had to over.