Why did the Mazungu sit in the Front Seat of the Matatu?

Events of Saturday, October 6.

After a 4 hour Matatu trip from Kitale to Kisumu, we arrived a a major bus staging area in a bustling section of Kisumu. You have not lived until you have ridden in a Matatu.  In many cases, the Matatu are Toyota minivans, specially fitted to hold 14 passengers. They are privately owned but considered public transportation.  I have tried to take my son, Paul’s advice on every trip to Africa and ride some form of public transportation.

From the bus stage, John and I walked to the Kisumu Friends Church.  The Church is situated on a large plot of land, and the compound contains a meeting house, a parsonage, a nursery school and a caretakers home, along with a few outbuildings and playground equipment.  It was about 10:30 when it arrived and the Kisumu air was humid, the heat was rising and it was quite a bit more uncomfortable then it had been in Kitale.

The place was quiet, but upon entering the caretaker’s home, we met Francis Kiboi, John’s friend, a pastor and senior lecturer at Kima International School of Theology. He was to be the guest speaker and seminar leader at a stewardship seminar offered for leaders at the Kisumu church. The event was scheduled to start at 10. John told us that due to work schedules the leaders who were expected at 10:00 would not get there until 2:30 or so.  He offered to take us into town and buy us lunch.  We rode a tuk tuk, a three passenger auto-rickshaw, popular in India.  In the center of town, we entered a mall like building and ate Chinese food at the same place Debbie, Paul and I had eaten with our Fox team in 2009.  After doing some errands, we returned to the church.

About 2:00 the ladies brought us tea and bread.  We were situated in the parsonage, which was vacant.  John set up a makeshift office for himself while Francis and I had a long conversation about politics, theology, Kenyan history and American-Kenyan solidarity.  Both Francis and John were supportive of President Obama and were praying for his re-election.

By 3:30 no seminar participants had arrived, but the ladies brought us ugali and sukuma wiki, a tasty kale. I could not eat my portion of ugali, not because it was not good, it was too much!  Francis and I went outside after a good rain and we sat in front of the meeting house.  Finally a few participants came. By six, we had 8 people there and John and Francis did an abbreviated workshop with those leaders.  I participated as well.

After the seminar, John took us to St Anna;s guesthouse where we met up with the rest of my colleagues.  They had spent the day roaming the Western Province with Zadock as their driver and host.  Zadock introduced my colleagues to his wife and children and his mother and they went to Mufutu, his former school. We all went out to an Indian Restaurant. There we were, five Americans and 3 Kenyans, with John holding court.  Eloise and John ordered food and it was quite good.

After dinner, John asked, on the occasion of me leaving the next day, if our hearts were clear. I said, “Actually, John, there is something I am a bit unclear about and I hope you can help me understand”.  What I was curious about was that when we changed Matatu in Kakemaga, about one-half way from Kitale to Kisumu, both John and the conductor insisted I sit in the front seat.  I had already sat in the front seat all the way from Kitale, and had the seat to myself until an older gent joined me about 30 minutes about of Kakamega. They practically compelled me to get in the front during the second leg of my journey, causing a well-dressed lady to move over to the middle front seat.  I now had the prime position at the front window.

I admit, I was a little irritated that they insisted, because I thought there were deferring to me because I was white or because I was old.  But, I figured, “I don’t want another Rwandan bus trip”, so I just enjoyed the ride.  I loved the country side, both the villages and the open country.  The Kenyan police were out in force, and I am sure we passed at least seven or eight checkpoints along our journey.  We were asked to pull over at each, but at each we were waved on.  I guessed that we did not look like terrorists or criminals.

Anyway, back at the Indian place, I was waiting for John’s reply. He answered, “Actually there was a reason. With a Mazungu riding in the front, the police will not stop the vehicle.” I did then have a flash of recognition, indeed, the reason we were waved through was because the police officer saw me.

John continued, ” They do not want a foreigner to see how they extort money from the conductor.  If the conductor refusing to pay a bribe, the Matatu is held up for one reason or another.  It is a typical practice for the police to stop these minibuses for this purpose.  You helped reduced corruption in Kenya today”.

He laughed, and I think we all laughed, I was pleased with myself and with what I learned and pleased that I could play a small part in reducing corruption in the Western Province of Kenya.  So, the next time you are asked to ride in the front seat of a Kenyan Matatu, accept it as a duty to serve your fellow passengers.  You will not only be a corruption-stopper, you will speed up the journey for your fellow travelers.

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