Mind-Change, Matatus, and East African Time

We have heard a lot of talking going around about customer service, development and mind-change in Rwanda- something is left to be desired. To change customer service, and on the grander scale mind-change, a nation-wide campaign has begun.

We have heard a lot of talking going around about customer service, development and mind-change in Rwanda- something is left to be desired. To change customer service, and on the grander scale mind-change, a nation-wide campaign has begun.

It will go full-throttle in tackling an unattractive image we want to shed. What we are ultimately talking about descends down to time-management.

These things are all interconnected. Customer-service connects to work ethic; work ethic connects to values of time, and so forth.

It is possible to run campaigns, to advertise the idea of changing our mind-set. But our behaviour and beliefs are undoubtedly a product of our environment, and if we do not change our environment, we will ultimately get nowhere.

Today, it took me one hour to go from Nyamirambo to Kimihurura. I took the most common form of transport other than my legs – the matatu.

On a motorcycle, it would take 10 minutes. I used to take motorcycles, and I know they are a luxury for people. A moto to Kimi would cost Frw800 each way, the minibus Frw250.

For the majority of Rwandans, the backbone of the workforce of the country, the minibus is the best if only way to get around the city – unless of course you want to walk.

For the rest of us, who have things to do during the day, if you don’t have a private vehicle, transport and the daily commute are the skeletons a day is built around.

Especially here - where I will argue the Matatu system reinforces a culture of “East African Time” that is a building bloc of this “culture of mediocrity.”

It actually took me an hour today. I timed it. Left my house as 12:30, got off the bus at 1:24. That’s just ridiculous. For anyone trying to actually get somewhere, to actually do something, it just takes up too much time.

All of a sudden, the number of things to do, opportunities to be had in a single day plummets. Of course I can wake up early – hour commutes are not unheard of – but it limits anything else you can do in the day besides go to and from work, and secondly, the slowness isn’t due to traffic or weather, it’s because the Matatu system intentionally deprives passengers of getting somewhere so that each matatu can make more money.

It is the archetype of enslavement of companies over clients, it’s the archetype of a “culture of mediocrity” and it’s the foundation for how we perceive – and respect – time in our lives.

The basic system here is that each minibus waits until it is fully loaded – roughly 16 passengers – to move. When people get off at a certain stop, the matatu waits until more people come in.

Sometimes they wait for five or ten minutes at any given stop, just waiting for people to come down the street wanting to get in.

Often times they pull over on the side of the road and continue their search – all at the expense of the people inside the vehicle needing to get somewhere.

These things add up. Maybe many people can accept 1 hour halfway across the city, but its does not have to be. And if we do accept it, we are relegating ourselves to days full of nothing, with no velocity, motivation and purpose to get more done.

I know the matatus need to make money. I know they can’t drive around the city, eating gas, without passengers.

But here’s a mathematical fact, for every moment a matatu is waiting idly for a passenger in one place, another passenger is waiting idly for that matatu somewhere down the road.

Mathematical fact; if matatus keep driving around on their circuit, they won’t lose that much money, if any at all. And people will get places faster, and time will be more precious, and mind-change will set in.

This matatu mediocrity that is literally slamming mind-change against a wall and not letting it move, causes other problems as well.

Because they take so much time at each stop, you often have many matatus, all on the same route, waiting at the same stops for the same people. Often they crowd each other and cause dangerous driving environments.

But the worst criminal offender, must be chalked up to the transfer time in central business district, where I must have waited on a stationary mostly-filled bus for roughly 20 – 30 minutes alone, while they wait for more passengers.

Have you been down there? It’s an absolute circus. With all the new big busses, it’s an accident waiting to happen. Matatus won’t leave a taxi-park until it is completely full. That can take a lot of time. Meanwhile, the bus may be 75 per cent full, but it still won’t move.

Similarly, you once again have multiple busses on a single route all competing for the same passengers, a simply ridiculous redundancy that continues throughout the entire trip.

This isn’t ideology, development theory or political science. This is about making things work. Like the body’s circulatory system, we must unclog the arteries of our city. And the heart must be cleared and reconstructed as well.

In South Africa, many taxi parks are organized, with separate divided lines for busses from different city routes, with clearly labelled plaques attached above so everyone knows very easily where to go.

Each bus on each route takes its turn getting filled, ensuring that busses fill up faster and in a more organized fashion, that benefits all.

These are the building blocks of society. If we are serious about changing attitude and behaviour, particularly concerning work ethic and value of time, we must start by fixing the Matatu problem.

A new, organized and spacious taxi park must be set up. Not only will it streamline what is becoming a major traffic and possibly security risk, but also it will amend so called ‘African’ psychology of disorganization and chaos that seems to be taken as status-quo.

Renovating both the taxi-park itself and matatu protocol will make things move faster, safer, more efficiently, and will be a stem-cell of psychology that will extend to whatever it touches.

Change from the top-down has proven successful here in Rwanda, but it can only go so far. What we need to is change the physics, the parameters and mechanisms that govern the passage of time, and thus, its importance in every day life for every day Rwandans.

How can we make Rwanda a nation of more vigorous, aggressive and serious people? By not wasting their time. By helping them feel they are not, sardines packed into a can, and dragged along in that inevitable, lazy “East African Time.”

We can fix it for real.

Contact: jokron@gmail.com

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