They jostle and hustle for roads space with vehicles through the morning traffic as they pull their cargo-laden carts. With pain and strain being their lot from dawn to dusk, mkokoteni pushers are the human versions of beasts of burdens.
Labour hardened and more often than not covered in soiled and tattered garb, these men literary feeds from the sweat of their brows.
Motorists who dare stand on their way ends up with smashed side mirrors while pedestrians who hesitate to give way will be nursing a broken limb.
“Navigating through the morning traffic jam with three sacks of potatoes on board from Marikiti Market in Muthurwa area to the other side of town is no mean task,” explains Peter Mutahi-not the real name- a cart pusher who spoke to The Nairobian on condition of anonymity. “You not only fight to deliver the goods on time but you are also dodging the city council askaris and trying to avoid smashing into other peoples cars”.
Mutahi says that he pays the City Council Sh50 every day after which he gets a receipt which he has to carry around all day, failure to which he pays again.
“In some very rare occasions I am lucky and I don’t meet kanjo (council askaris) hence I don’t pay the money,” he says. “But that is very rare, it happens around once or twice a month”.
Mutahi explains that he is just a beba beba (pusher) who doesn’t own a mkokoteni and have to rent one whenever he gets some goods to ferry from Marikiti to another destination.
As we gain his confidence he directs us to the famous Marikiti Market in Muthurwa from where he operates.
We had to literary dodge our way around a throng of vehicular, human and mkokoteni traffic in the densely crowded market until we get to a group of men standing next to a long line of orderly parked carts.
This is where Mutahi and other beba bebas usually rent the carts, and the owners are very willing to talk as long as long as we don’t reveal their names.
“I used to have around thirty mkokotenis but unfortunately all of them except six were stolen and sold to scrap metal dealers by rogue beba bebas,” explains Blackie, one of the cart owners who decline to give his real name for fear of being harassed by city council askaris. “The remaining ones I only hire to those pushers that I know really well”.
He says that the beba bebas are supposed to operate all day except between midday and two o’clock. Anyone caught by the city council inside the prohibited time is usually in big trouble.
“If caught you either bribe your way out or the mkokoteni will be impounded by the askaris,” Blackie explains. “You have to pay Sh1000 for it to be released by kanjo, and since the pushers barely have any money with them it’s the owner who usually foots the bill”.
The cart owners support the order by Nairobi Governor to revoke all the scrap metal dealers licenses saying they are the ones who abates the stealing of mkokotenis.
But that’s where their love with the city fathers ends.
“The council only collects money but there are dangerous potholes in the market that have broken the legs of many beba bebas,” complains Mike Muya, another cart owner who, like Blackie, declines to give his real names for fear of reprisals from city council askaris. “They haven’t provided a parking for us yet they harass us whenever they find the mkokotenis double packed saying we are obstructing the market’s traffic”.
Our efforts to get in touch with the City Council officers in charge of Marikiti Market bore no fruits since the calls went unanswered.
Muya who owns ten carts says that the money he gets is barely enough to sustain his wife and three children given the fact that one mkokoteni hardly rakes in a hundred shillings a day.
“It costs between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 to make one cart and the beba bebas hire the mkokoteni at Sh30 per trip on average,” he explains. “This means to get back the initial investment the cart have to do more than 300 trips which is more than a 100 days of consistently doing three trips per day”.
This, Muya says, is the ideal situation since one have to fact in money paid to the city council, days when the cart won’t get any business, even theft and traffic jams that sometimes bog down the mkokotenis for hours.
However, the pricing dynamics are also determined by the distance between the point of departure and the destination.
From Marikiti to the central business district they will charge Sh30 but longer distances like Ngara, Mombasa and Jogoo roads the price could go as high as Sh100 because the beba beba will spend more time with the cart.
“We are very disappointed that those we elected during the general election like our MP Maina Kamanda and Central Ward County Representative Gitonga Mwaniki have never been seen in Marikiti since they won,” Muya complains. “The only elected leader who visited us a few days ago is Senator Mike Sonko”.
The mkokoteni owners say that these elected leaders should be the ones presenting their plight to the Nairobi County authorities.
Each cart owner marks his fleet using a unique trademark, which comes in lofty titles like Global War, Pastor Investment, Godfather, Jack Mover, Gold King and Yesu ni Bwana.
Unlike the Matatu industry that operates through co-operatives, the mkokoteni sector does not have any formal organization but for one to succeed they need the support of an insider.
“You have to be brought in by an established owner, otherwise you will face a lot of hurdles,” quips Blackie who started as a beba beba and rose to be a mkokoteni owner. “If you come on your own your carts will be stolen and you will get no business”.
Apart from mkokoteni, the trolley is also a familiar site along the streets of Nairobi. The trolley business, The Nairobian learnt, have the same story as the cart industry where there a many pushers who earns peanuts and few owners who takes home a lion share of the income.
Trolley pushers rent their tools of trade on a daily basis and pay the mandatory Sh50 city council fees, which means to operate at a profit one has to earn more than Sh150.
“There are other miscellaneous costs like the city council askaris can arrest you on allegations of driving on the wrong side of the road or parking on the pavement,” explains Moustapha Azia, a trolley pusher who operates from the Bus Station area. “We would like the city council should specify how much a trolley should pay per day or week”.
He says sometimes he is arrested even three times a day.
Unlike many other mkokoteni and trolley pushers who have resigned to the fate of toiling in the tiring trade for the rest of their lives, Anthony Mwangi, 24, believes that for him pulling a trolley is for a season and a reason.
“I started doing this job while in high school and right now I am working to save enough to join Nairobi Aviation College to do a course in Hotel and Catering Management,” he told The Nairobian. “Hopefully, I will have enough money from my daily earnings and well wishers to start my studies by September”.
Saying that the youth should not be selective in jobs as long as they can earn a living, the ambitious young man says the public should also erase the perception that all beba bebas are thieves or conmen.
Mwangi says he hires his trolley from an owner who operates based at Tea Room around River Road area.
“He owns more than 40 trolleys and he have a manager who ensures all the trolleys are hired out daily and returned in the evening,” he explains. “He is a wealthy man who has other business interests”.
Efforts by The Nairobian to track down the trader bore no fruis.
There are other beba bebas who owns the trolleys they use, although this is rare given the fact that a good one costs between Sh5000 to Sh8000.
The history of mkokoteni stretches far back to Kenya's pre-independence era where the carts were being pulled by animals like donkeys and cows. However, how the name “mkokoteni” was coined is quiet unclear.
Some scholars say the word“koko” stems from “kokota” which means to drag in Swahili. Just like the word matatu, the terminology must have come about as a matter of necessity.
But despite the mystery of the origin of its name, mkokoteni remains an integral part of Nairobi's urban transport.
Story first published in The Nairobian