SPREADING CORONAVIRUS?

Inside panya routes used from Nairobi to Mombasa and back

Boda boda riders, truck drivers and corrupt police are helping to defeat the travel curbs. Our journalist posed as a passenger to unearth the schemes

In Summary

• A lockdown was imposed in both cities to help contain the spread of the coronavirus 

• It costs Sh500-Sh1,000 to be sneaked from Nairobi to Machakos, Sh2,000-Sh3,000 to travel on the highway from Machakos to Kwale, and Sh100 to be sneaked from Kwale to Mombasa, with police and rogue youth taking Sh50 bribes along the way.

A rider and passenger navigate through a valley at Lukenya Hills plains on June 29
A rider and passenger navigate through a valley at Lukenya Hills plains on June 29
Image: ANDREW KASUKU

While cessation of movement remains in effect in both Nairobi Metropolitan area and Mombasa, Kenyans hellbent on breaking the law are still moving in and out of these areas.

 

It’s a sad state of affairs resulting from poor policing, hard economic times and indiscipline, and could help explain why the lockdown in both cities has done little to stem the spread of the coronavirus as intended.

Nairobi’s roadblock is a few kilometres from Athi River, which is being manned by GSU officers.

 

But at Devik stage, boda boda riders await customers who wish to cross to Machakos county.

 

After parting with Sh500-Sh1,000, the rider will take you on a bumpy ride through valleys up to Machakos Junction on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway.

I posed as a passenger to see how Kenyans are able to bypass the Athi River roadblock.

The riders prefer to carry two passengers so as to get reasonable profits after bribing police in the routes.

Just about 500m to the police roadblock, we branch into a murram road to the right. Five minutes into our journey, we meet six motorcycles carrying other passengers from Machakos to Athi River.

 

The journey is very bumpy and tough due to bumps, holes and dips formed by clay soil after heavy rains. It makes us bob up and down throughout the journey.

 

My fellow passenger is donning a grey suit. He doesn't look like one who could go to such lengths to break the law.

 

He later says he was going to see his family in Makindu, Makueni county.

Despite the rough terrain, our driver appears experienced and goes into and out of valleys with expertise.

He must have used this route many times to master it, I think to myself.

I just hear the government release money to the elderly, they forget the youth. We need to feed our families. That’s why we do this
Boda boda rider

SENSE OF ADVENTURE

His music system is playing a cocktail of Christian and secular benga Kamba tunes, which suppress our fatigue.

We pass through herds of cattle of goats grazing in open fields.

We are going round Lukenya Hills. The plains are clear and despite the rains, the clay soil doesn’t give room for a lot of vegetation to grow.

The picturesque grassland only seen in Nat Geo movies takes away the guilt of the illegal trip. One feels like they are on a safari trip into the wild.

We are stopped by one boda boda driver who is lost in the fields with his passengers, and our driver explains the best routes to avoid the police.

Our rider finds out if the police are stationed at their usual place.

“I haven’t seen them but if you find them, you'll part with the usual Sh200, so don’t worry,” the other rider assures us.

He has a natural dark complexion, but the dust on the paths has given him a brown face.

We meet many other riders carrying young people, women and a few elderly people.

They are all masked, which makes them obedient citizens and disobedient at the same time.

At some point, we are stopped by two men, who demand Sh50.“Can’t you see how we have repaired this valley, now you can pass with less trouble?” one of them, who seems high on drugs, says after our rider protests.

The rider gives in as the other man, who is armed with a slingshot, threatens to strike him.

I count more than 20 riders in the wilderness, many with two passengers, trying to beat the cessation of movement directive.

A passenger is being ferried across Bonje section between Miritini and Mazeras on June 23, 2020
A passenger is being ferried across Bonje section between Miritini and Mazeras on June 23, 2020
Image: COURTESY

PERILOUS JOURNEY

The rides bring to mind the perilous journeys migrants make from West Africa to Europe across the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea.

Passengers who wish to cross the barrier for reasons known to them, and the riders who say the reason for risking is to get money, care less about contracting the virus.

After one hour and 10 minutes on the back road, we join the Mombasa-Nairobi highway approximately 3km past the roadblock and take 20 more minutes to reach Machakos Junction.

The rider says we are lucky as we did not encounter the police.

“I just hear the government release money to the elderly, they forget the youth who are out here also need to be cushioned. We don’t have money and we need to feed our families. That’s why we do this,” our rider (name withheld) said.

Shuttles stationed at Machakos town or at the Junction town called Kyumbi transport people express to Mazeras, Kwale county, in the morning hours. The ride will cost about Sh2,000-Sh3,000.

Trucks with no co-drivers are also offering travelling services, though you'll have to hide in the bed behind the driver’s seat for the entire journey.

The shuttles, import cars and trucks carrying people will part with a Sh50 bribe at police roadblocks along the highway if they get bothered.

One can also opt to use upcountry matatus plying from Machakos to Mtito Andei and connect the rest of the journey with other vehicles.

Police checks along the highway are at Malili, Makindu, Mtito Andei, Voi, Maungu and Taru, but will occasionally shift positions.

Truck drivers who traverse East Africa to keep regional trade moving are reported to get infections and transmit it at the key stopping points.

But the failure by authorities to effectively enforce the cessation of movement directive may mean that passengers who choose trucks as means of transport may be sailing close to the wind.

Upon arriving at Mazeras, boda boda riders will fight for your attention to cross you to Miritini, the first neighborhood into Mombasa, where you can pick matatus to your destination in Mombasa.

FREEDOM AT ROADBLOCK

The police roadblock is at Bonje, but police do not bother with the riders.

The ride costs Sh100 from Mazeras to Miritini, a smooth ride with no police stop at the checkpoint.

“They were stopping us earlier but I think they got tired,” a rider who only introduced himself as Juma said.

He transports up to five people on a good day from Mazeras to Miritini and back.

At Mazeras, shuttles await passengers who cross from Mombasa using the boda bodas to transport them upcountry.

While Kenyans are using informal routes to pass the Athi River roadblock, it’s a free pass at Bonje.

Groups of riders jostle for passengers at Miritini.

Depending of the time you leave either Nairobi or Mombasa, it can take you a day or two to reach your destination.

Mombasa police commander Augustine Nthumbi told the Star he would ‘find out’ about the movement of boda boda riders from Miritini.

Health CAS Mercy Mwangangi on June 24 announced that one is more likely to get infected with the coronavirus in Mombasa than in Nairobi.

She said despite Mombasa having the second-highest number of cases, it has a high infection rate of 107.9 per cent followed by Nairobi with 55.2 per cent per 100,000 population.

Mombasa had an attack rate of 107, while Nairobi’s stood at 55.

“These statistics are very important. It tells us that the risk of you getting Covid-19 is higher in Mombasa compared to Nairobi county. And again, we are working to ensure we are actually able to define risk per county,” she said.

The realities on the ground mean that the government may need to do more in the enforcement of coronavirus directives meant to flatten the curve.

Edited by T Jalio