A strange thing happened this past monday at Kijabe Hospital. As one walked through out-patient and specialty clinics instead of seeing 200-300 patients waiting to see a doctor, all that could be seen were empty benches. It was strangely quiet without the sounds of the babies, the intercom of the next patient's name being announced, and the chatter of conversation. Where was everyone?
This picture above is not a Matatu (just imagine similar quality and appearance but more the size of a 11 seat van, yet with 15-20 people inside and some passengers hanging out the door) it might as well be. I found out from my coworkers that the entire country of Kenya had experienced a Matatu Driver Strike.
Matatus are private vehicles that provide the vast majority of transportation all over Kenya. The cost for a ride can be as little as 40 schillings (about 30 cents) and take you from the coast to Lake Victoria or just up the road to the highway. They have no schedule, little regulation, constantly break-down, and drive at ridiculous speeds on treacherous roads. But somehow the system works and people are able to get where they need to go.
Because of the strike the country was paralyzed. Goods could not be transported, students could not get to school, new intern doctors at Kijabe could not make it to their first day of work, and patients could not make it to the hospital.
I soon asked what was the cause of the strike. (I had assumed that the matatu drivers were striking against the passengers to demand they pay better fares.) I was wrong. No, the drivers were striking against the Kenyan government.
You see police officers do not drive around in cars giving tickets like in America. They remain at designated or undesignated road blocks (marked by large spike barricades) and direct vehicles to stop as they choose. The reasons for being stopped, depending who you talk with, can be legitimate (speeding, too many passengers, no license plates, no seat belts) or questionable (no flashers, no triangle reflectors, a flat tire, no fire-extinguisher).
Once stopped by a police officer an interesting exchange or dance exists between the two. After a couple of minutes, some negotiation, some dialogue, no paperwork, and a discreet handshake with cuffed money the Matatu will be on its way. This can happen 3 times in the matter or a hour drive. The Matatus were striking against the apparent police corruption and frequent stops by police officers for negligible offenses.
Three days later with negotiations between the president and Matatu Drivers Union (?) the strike was called off. Matatus were back on the road, doctors came to work, students made it to school, patients returned to Kijabe, and the benches were full.