February 25th 2018

Magazine / Gender Matters

Nairobi's male bus conductors feeling under siege as more employers prefer women

More women are taking up jobs in matatu industry, driving service standards in a sector once dominated by ill-mannered men and shining light on changing gender roles in a depressed economy.

By Judy Wamuyujwamuyu@kenyafreepress.comFriday, 27 May 2016 14:21 EAT

Margret busy at work. (Photo: Allan Muturi/Kenya Free Press)

Margret Maweya is busy at Commercial bus stage in Nairobi central business district. As a conductor with the Mwiki Sacco Limited (MSL), Commercial bus stage is Margaret’s main work station.

As her male competitors bang bus windows to catch every passer-by’s notice, Margaret, commonly known by her nickname, Esther, civilly invites potential passengers to her bus. She is ensconced comfortably inside the bus, peeping out of the vehicle's window, and gently beckons anyone who looks like a potential passenger.

After a few moments putting everything under control, Margaret, dressed in a heavy jumper, the official maroon trouser and hoodie, rests easy as she settles for a short interview. In discussing her work, she gives us a peek into the tough life of female bus conductors. Her day starts at exactly 4am and ends in the night. This is the routine she has observed for four years since getting into the job as a bus conductor, an occupation she got into by chance following the death of her husband.

As a young widow with two children to fend for, Margaret struggled to earn an income and take care of the kids. Her first occupation was a small business venture, kibanda, selling anything from second hand clothes to groceries. The business didn’t survive. Family bills swelled. The kids dropped out of school. She had to make her move.

Armed with determination and the desire to see her children through school, Margaret approached Mwirona Management, the bus company that dominated the Mwiki-Nairobi route for employment as conductor. She nostalgically recalls how, on her first day, she fell off the Nissan van and got a few bruises.

But she persevered, knowing this was the most realistic way for her to earn and take care of her children. With time she was perfecting her skills as a conductor, comfortably hanging onto doors, running after moving vehicles and whistling to catch the attention of potential passengers.

“This is a demanding job,” she said, outlining challenges such as meeting daily targets set by the bus owner, managing relationship with drivers, other conductors and traffic police officers. The latter are a delicate lot, they can arrest matatu workers and detain a bus at a whim.

There are also Nairobi City County askaris to cope with, and the occasional mean customers who look down upon female matatu staff. Women in the matatu industry confront institutional sexism that has constructed notions of which jobs are fit for women and how they are to fit in them.

But they have to cope. Margaret expressed deep gratitude for the first driver she worked with on joining the industry. “As a new entrant I was fortunate to have a driver who was extremely courteous.” The good relationship with the driver enabled her to prove herself within no time, opening the way for her to be employed full time rather than as a casual labourer. Full time employment is a revered promotion in the matatu industry, and Margaret’s life completely turned around from that point onwards.

Margaret’s path reflects the challenges modern Kenyan women face, at once required to make the home but also under pressure to achieve their professional potential and take care of families, in the worst cases as single parents. With the job market getting ever tighter, women find it increasingly imperative to compete against men in the myriad informal sector jobs this economy can offer. For decades, the surest fallback was on subsistence agriculture, where nearly the same number of women as men are absorbed each year.

But that market is shrinking. Kenyan farm production is challenged by the twin factors of diminishing land sizes and falling productivity. Millions of young people have no choice but scout for opportunities in the towns where jobs in construction, driving, touting, shoe shining and others are easier to come by. Margaret told the Free Press that the formation of Matatu Saccos has opened the industry to women by making work more formal and secure.

She is able to contribute to merry go rounds which in turn boost her finances. She plans on owning her Nissan Matatu earliest by mid next year  and build a home for her kids She challenges other women not to be too choosy and concentrate on doing odd but honest jobs to provide for their families.

The MSL Company that dominates business on the Nairobi-Mwiki route has opened up to women perhaps more than any other company. Other companies are also hiring more women, based to a limited extent on the proven success of pioneers like Margaret but also because more managers believe that women are not likely to cheat.

A manager with MSL told the Free Press that the company has nine women conductors in their employment. All have been in the industry for at most three years, with MSL or other previous employers.

The women are preferred by employers who feel they value their jobs more than men do. “If you have a child and no man, you want to keep a job,” the MSL manager said. He clarified that, even though the company has central management, hiring and firing is the preserve of the bus owners, who also set daily collection targets. But the management has the final word in cases of disputes between employers and employees.

Other bus companies have different reasons for employing women. The manager of a Meru Nissan company said that some employers choose women over men. “When I have two people looking for a job, one a woman and the other a man, I will not think twice about my choice. The woman is more likely to be taking good care of her family.”

However, a manager with Citi Shuttle that ply the Kikuyu, Rongai and Eastlands routes said they don’t have any special preference for women. He said the women look for the job only as a stepping stone to something else. “When they befriend a man and fall in love, you never see them again,” he said, adding that many men who take touting jobs make it a career. “A man may change from a tout to a conductor or a driver, but in many cases if you look for him three, fours years down the line you would find him still working in the industry.”

There are claims that some women adopt unbecoming behaviour to be seen as tough. The image of a lady hanging on a matatu doesn’t appeal. Margaret hopes that someday women in the industry will be viewed as decent and honest workers as opposed to the common perception that it is a  preserve of rebellious, uneducated lot.

It is not uncommon to see women hanging on buses door and doing what were once seen as male antics. In the MSL Company, the ladies are asked to behave civilly. The company’s niche is customers who prefer class over cost. While most Kasarani buses pick passengers at the old Bus Station, MSL negotiated with the Nairobi County Government to have their buses get into town.

Their clients pay Sh20 or Sh30 more than the traditional buses on Bus Station route. The women face less harassment due to a variety of factors. The company observes all rules from licensing to staff integrity, so police don’t go arresting them. As they deal with the cream of the estate, there is no trouble about where to drop off, which is a major concern in the more informal buses. The buses close business early in the night. It is good business for the ladies and MSL. But not everyone is happy. The men see the ladies as a new cause of blue collar job shortage.

As the economy doesn’t create enough jobs, blue collar work will continue to be desegregated. The areas where women did well, such as tailoring, are in less demand, while such fields like secretarial services have been rendered obsolete by new technologies.

One of the barriers to women in many blue collar jobs is the lack of apprenticeship and training. Men find it a lot easier, for example, to just hang around garages and learn automotive mechanics. Given these barriers, men will continue to feel under siege in matatu business.

Judy is a contributing writer for the Kenya Free Press

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