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Guest Post: A long time ago, Nairobi had a Bus Service that worked

Words: Ochieng Kochidi

The first time I rode a Kenya Bus Services (KBS) bus, was in 1975 when my family moved to Nakuru from Kakamega. There was no city bus service in Kakamega, so I found the concept interesting. The buses ran as far as Free-Area on the eastern end of town and as far as the Njoro Cheese factory on the western end of town.  The Nakuru buses were colored white with orange striping. Unfortunately, the Nakuru buses were withdrawn from service sometime around 1977, and so I did not enjoy riding a KBS bus again until my family moved to Nairobi in 1978.

KBS buses provided a reliable and affordable bus service between Nairobi and its suburbs.  The buses were colored white with green striping. Kenya Bus Service (KBS) was an off –shoot of the Overland Transport Company (OTC) which was a British company. OTC buses were colored white with black striping. OTC buses were long distance and ran between towns while KBS buses were designated for use within the city and its suburbs. KBS offered service between Nairobi City and the outlying suburbs such as Karen, Ngong, Nairobi Airport and Kenyatta University. The buses were clean and well maintained, with their central depot located at the “Tusker “stage in Nairobi.

I still retain fresh memories of my KBS experiences. There were bus conductors in all the buses who would walk up and down the bus while it was in motion and collect fares from all the passengers. They were equipped with a ticket machine which issued tickets on the spot. It was an odd metallic contraption that had a series of dials which the conductor manipulated based on the fare calculated. The ticket was then issued to the passenger, who was required to retain it for the duration of the bus ride as proof of payment.

Courtesy of Kenyatalk.com

Students were provided with a bus pass which allowed them to travel almost anywhere for the flat rate of one shilling. The bus pass had your picture on it and looked like a little booklet. You showed this to the conductor and he gave you the discounted ticket. Bus passes were shared freely among students and it was not uncommon for the same bus pass to be used by more than one person on the same bus. How the bus pass traveled from the front of the bus to the back of the bus remains one of those enduring Nairobi mysteries.

As young men, we came up with all sorts of enterprising schemes to avoid paying the full fare. The ticket machine also doubled as a fearsome weapon which the conductor brandished whenever he was faced with an unruly subject. It was made of solid metal and was attached to a strap that was slung across the conductor’s chest. This strap then doubled as a convenient sling from which the machine could be easily deployed in a variety of defensive strikes and counter measures. I suspect, all the conductors received a course in self-defense by ticket machine.

One of the common tricks to avoid paying the full fare, was to tell the conductor that you were traveling to a closer destination than you were. Of course, this trick would only work if the bus was full, otherwise the conductor would likely remember you. The conductors seemed to have photographic memories.

Another common trick was to literally avoid the conductor by alighting from the bus as he got closer to you and then simply walking to the front or rear of the bus (depending on where the conductor was located), and boarding the same bus again!  There were no doors in most of the buses back then.

They always seemed to be big burly men and had quite the intimidating appearance.

Other tricks were riskier, such as chewing on the ticket and then offering it up for inspection when asked. Most times the conductor would just nod and move on, not wanting to handle a ticket coated with saliva.

Another strategy was corruption, totally illegal, but worked well especially on late night buses, by offering the conductor a cash bribe of 50% of the ticket price. The conductor would pocket the money and not issue a ticket. There was a tacit unspoken understanding that if the dreaded ticket examiners showed up, the conductor would demand full fare and claim that you had been avoiding him.

The dreaded ticket inspectors were an ever-present danger. They drove around in small beige mini minor sedans and positioned themselves at random bus stations all over the city. They could literally appear from nowhere. They would work in twos and would board the bus from both the front and the rear. They would then methodically start checking every passengers’ ticket, working in such a way that it was impossible to evade scrutiny.

They always seemed to be big burly men and had quite the intimidating appearance. At the time the bus drivers and conductors wore a uniform consisting of olive green pants and a jacket. The inspectors wore olive green suits with white shirts and black ties that made them look even more menacing. The inspectors were not fond of smiling. Even the drivers and conductors seemed to be afraid of them.

They were all equipped with two way radios, which they used to keep track of each other’s movements as well as communicate with dispatch. If an inspector found you without a ticket, he would ask the conductor to issue one immediately for the full fare. He would then scowl at the conductor and make some sort of cryptic note in a pad they always carried in their pockets. From the look on the conductor’s face, there were probably repercussions in store.

I never recall seeing a timetable at a bus stop, although there must have been some sort a scheduling system in effect, because if I left my house at a certain time, I would almost always catch the bus at the same time. There was no schedule that you could take and keep with you, so you just “learned” the schedule and hoped for the best when taking the bus.

The older model Leyland and GUY buses did not have doors or a rear bench seat.

The bus stops were called“stages”, and had various names such as on the number 5 route from Jamhuri estate to Nairobi City, the stages would include, Adams Arcade, Menelik, Gaylord, and Community.

Most of the buses were British Leyland make, but some of them were GUY buses. I liked the GUY models because they had manual gearboxes. They were essentially stick shift buses and it was always fun watching the driver as he double clutched his way through the gears.

Most of the KBS drivers were good and their accident rate was very low compared to other buses in public service. As KBS modernized their fleet, they gradually introduced newer Leyland models that had a semi-automatic transmission. This was an interesting setup where the driver had what looked like a miniature gearbox at his fingertips and he would shift gears by toggling a small lever mounted adjacent to the steering wheel.

I enjoyed watching the drivers at work as they skillfully maneuvered the big buses through city traffic. Because standing passengers were allowed all the way to the front, you could literally sit on the engine block, especially if you were a school kid. It was always nice on cold mornings because the engine generated heat and was nice and toasty to sit on. The newer Leyland models had a metal barrier around the engine that prevented one from sitting there. So, on colder mornings you always tried to board a GUY bus whenever possible.

The older model Leyland and GUY buses did not have doors or a rear bench seat. Those were introduced on the newer models that were introduced around 1980. This was significant because with the introduction of doors, the drivers were required to keep them closed while the bus was in motion. However, this caused a problem because people then tended to lean against the doors with the result that when the bus stopped and the doors opened, unsuspecting passengers would find themselves thrown onto the pavement.

With the introduction of doors, came the prized rearmost bench seat, a favorite for school children. There was a safety metal railing that framed the door that also doubled as a perch for the lucky schoolkid who got it first. It was not unusual to see the back seat empty while a school kid sat on the metal railing. It was cool kids did.  Adults usually avoided the rear bench seat because it was also the most uncomfortable seat in the whole bus!

The doors operated on some sort of pneumatic system that emitted a loud hiss whenever it was activated. So, whenever you heard the hissing sound, you knew to get out of the way, before you got squashed by the doors. We also quickly learned that if you exerted pressure at the joint in between the doors at the same time as the driver was activating them (hissing sound), the pneumatics would not work and the doors would reopen again. The drivers eventually gave up and did not even attempt to close the doors when the buses were full. This provided much needed ventilation and additional standing room for more people.

Buses did not stop automatically at all stops especially when they were full. To stop the bus, you were supposed to ring the bell. The problem is that there were only a few bells in the bus, so sometimes you were unable to get to a bell and had to rely on passing the message forward for the driver to stop. This meant asking the passengers near you to alert the driver in a sort of “pass the word forward” system. This system worked well for the most part, but eventually the KBS transitioned to a bell strip system that extended the length of the bus and was easier to access.

When the bus was not crowded, you simply made your way to the front of the bus and the driver would stop the bus for you. In fact, when the bus was fully loaded and crawling up a hill, it was not uncommon for male passengers (especially students and young men), to board and disembark the bus at will, while it was still moving.

I remember distinctly as a young man, that many a time when I approached my destination and moved towards the door, the driver would give me a conspiratorial glance as if to say, “are you with me?”, if I smiled or nodded back at him, he would simply slow the bus down, instead of stopping and I would hop off the bus, while he continued his journey. Apparently, the drivers loved doing this, because it saved them the effort of having to merge back into traffic and earned a rep of being a “cool” driver.

 I last rode a KBS bus in 1984, when I left Nairobi.

There was a popular bus route that followed Ngong road up community hill, leading to Afya House, Kilimo House and continued onto towards Kenyatta Hospital.  This was a very steep hill and the KBS buses, especially the older GUY models really struggled to make it all the way up, when fully loaded at rush hour. Young joggers would often pace a bus all the way up the hill. Due to the struggle in making it up the hill, it was a known fact that if the bus was full, it would not stop because the driver did not want to lose the climbing momentum.

So, if you wanted to board a number 7, 5 or 103 bus at Community during peak hour, you were almost better off walking down to the All Saints bus stop and boarding the bus there. However, if you were a school kid or felt so inclined, you could literally hop onto the slow-moving bus as it passed the stage without stopping.

Seating choice was important because certain seats were generally avoided by experienced riders. The seats over the rear wheel wells were the last to be occupied because the hump over the wheels robbed one of precious leg room. The other seat to avoid was the rearmost bunch seat because it was the bumpiest ride in the entire bus. This was also the seat that all the school children wanted.

The newer Leyland models also had a single jump seat located right at the front of the bus that was similarly avoided because people disembarking the bus would always bump into you. During that era, it was common for young men and school children to give up their seats for older women, pregnant women and especially anyone who appeared to be sickly or ill.

The buses were licensed to carry a given number of seated and standing passengers. Riding the bus while standing required a special skill set which one quickly acquired through experience. As the bus took a turn, you held on to the poles (also known as javelin) that ran the length of the bus. If the bus turned left, you leaned towards the right to counter the momentum and this retained your balance. If executed correctly, this move looked cool and the sensation was somewhat akin to a surfer riding a big wave.

The drivers were very good about using their mirrors and you quickly learned to make sure that the driver spotted you especially if you were boarding a crowded bus. You would wave to get his attention, and hope that he had seen you.

KBS faced stiff competition from the minibus taxis  known as matatus. These matatus were commonly Nissan or Toyota 8 or 10 passenger minivans. Many of the matatus were customized with intricate sound systems that pumped the latest tunes and enticed lots of young people to ride them.

I personally preferred the buses because there was simply more room in them, and it was somehow considered classier to ride a bus rather than a matatu.

I believe the increased pressure from the matatus, mismanagement, new government regulations that outlawed standing passengers  led to the demise of KBS. Matatus at that time were not well regulated and flaunted laws with impunity while the KBS always maintained their buses to top specifications. In addition, their fare structure was very liberal and did not really lend itself to profit making.

One could ride from Nairobi City to Langata for a flat rate while the matatu fares were based on the actual distance traveled. KBS drivers were professional and would adhere to their schedules whether or not the bus was full, while a matatu would not leave the stage until it was packed.

I last rode a KBS bus in 1984, when I left Nairobi.  Shortly thereafter, the short lived“Nyayo” bus gave KBS some stiff competition towards the late 1980s. Nyayo buses did not last and KBS was taken over by StageCoach buses which also ended up going out of business.

To this day, Nairobi is one of the few cities of its size in the world, without a proper commuter bus service. Indeed, while most progressive cities in the world encourage and promote the use of mass transit, it is unfortunate that in such a beautiful City as Nairobi, the concept of mass transit is reduced to matatus and a spotty train service.

I will always remember those original KBS buses, popularly known as “boo” with much nostalgia.

#ThrowbackThursdays

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About Iam_Jmeka

I am a blogger, social media manager, and writer currently living in Nairobi County, Kenya. My interests range from technology to politics. I am also interested in football, surfing, and entrepreneurship.

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