How Covid-19 silenced chaotic Machakos Country Bus Station
Before the first two cases of coronavirus were announced in Kenya, Machakos Country Bus Station in Nairobi, was a hive of activity.
Chaos reigned supreme as passengers from all walks of Kenya flocked to the station to either alight from other parts of Kenya or to board buses to leave the busy capital.
But ever since Covid-19 was declared in Kenya followed by cessation of movement into and out of Nairobi, the most lucrative, busiest, dirtiest and chaotic bus stations, perhaps the biggest and oldest in the country and the entire East Africa region, which is popularly known simply as Machakos bus station or ‘airport’ ground to a halt.
Twenty-four-hour congestions, huge buses fighting for parking space every second, armies of touts literally fighting for passengers, hawkers jostling to sell their wares, food kiosks fighting for space and customers, mixed with all manner of pickpockets and crooks are a thing of the past.
The huge bus parking spaces are completely empty with only a few closed lorry trucks receiving or delivering cargo as well as mini-buses which have transformed from passenger to cargo transporters.
“Masses of human traffic, travelling in or out of the city, their escorts, those selling or doing any other business at the station are nowhere to be found, replaced instead by idlers and hundreds of chained jobless cargo transport steel hand carts,” says a bus park leader Protus Momanyi.
The only occupied entity is the neighbouring mini-country bus station next to Wakulima Market, which for weeks on end has been fully parked by grounded buses belonging to Honest Climax Bus.
Momanyi says the collapse of the station, which used to rake in hundreds of thousands of shillings if not millions every day for the Nairobi City County, happened soon after President Uhuru Kenyatta banned travel in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and now Mandera just before the commencement of the Easter Holidays last month, a season that see heightened demand for travel upcountry.
Momanyi recalls better days when the bus station offered transport services to hundreds of passengers.
The most popular routes were Nyanza, Western, Northern parts of Kenya destinations and arrivals, among others.
Buses bearing the blunt of the travel ban include Honest Climax, Eldoret Express, Trans Mara, Nya Ugenya, the Green Bus, Nyamira Express, Kisii Deluxe, Nairobi Coach Company, Western Express, Mbukinya, Ngware-ini, Gusii De Luxe, Samia Express, Classic Express, and Makkah.
“Majority of buses stationed at the Machakos country bus station do not have booking offices in the city’s central business district like their competitors – Coast Bus, Mash Poa, Crown Coach, Tahmeed, Easy Coach, the Guardian Angel, Coast Modern, Simba Coach…and many others which drop and pick passengers who have already booked seats for travel with fairly fixed fares irrespective of demand,” says a Public Transporters Association senior officer, who sought anonymity.
The official says the country buses run a 24-hour operations from “Machakos Airport” dropping off and picking passengers from various stations including Nakuru, Kericho, Sotik, Kisii town, Nyamira, Kisumu, Kakamega, Butere, Luanda, Mumias and Nambale… all the way to Busia on the border. Then Eldoret, Kitale, Kapenguria, Webuye, Kimilili, Bungoma, Malaba and Lwakhakha on the Kenya-Uganda border among others.
Travelling from Machakos country bus station, the official says, is a nightmare for passengers who are not allowed the simple right to choose what bus to travel by ruthless and sometimes vicious armies of chaotic touts fighting for passengers to fill their respective buses.
“It was not uncommon to see touts aggressively confront prospective travellers from as far as 500 metres on all entries to the facility who would shamelessly grab your luggage, lie about the prevailing fare to your destination to as low as Sh500 when the actual fee will be stood at Sh1,000. In the struggles that ensued many travellers lost their luggage and other personal belongings like mobile phones and wallets among others,” says the official.
The worst periods were and still are the festive seasons such as Easter, Ramadhan/Idd and the December Christmas season when the fares always shot from a normal low of Sh700 to Sh800 per seat to as high as Sh4,000 to Sh5,000 for the same.
True to its chaotic nature, Machakos Country Bus operators tried to resist the cessation order but according to the station’s manager Joseph Njoroge the government was hell bent on instituting its order. That would mark the end of the famous chaos at the station.
“The first sign of trouble came with the firm enforcement of the social distancing rule. Most of the long-distance buses here have three seats on the right side and the left has two, therefore the new rules meant the right side could only take two passengers on the entire right row of seats and one on the left hand – it meant losing a lot of money. So fares were increased,” says Njoroge.