Downtown Nairobi is a bustling scene of people darting across the road and a long line of matatus — little- and medium-sized buses — waiting for passengers.
John Macharia owns two of those buses and he loves the work. Matatus, he says, are essential to Nairobi.
But, Macharia says, they’re often targeted by police for the smallest infractions.
Macharia became a national figure last month when he spoke up at a corruption forum attended by President Uhuru Kenyatta. His act of bravery sparked a national discussion about everyday corruption — a topic Kenyans don’t usually like to discuss.
At the forum, Macharia said that he had to have $8 in his pocket every day to pay off police. And in front of the president and the police chief, he made a serious accusation.
“I believe the problem is that traffic policemen do not wake up to control traffic in Nairobi,” he said. “They wake up in the morning to come and collect money from our buses, period!”
He received a round of applause from the audience. But the president remained silent and the police chief, Joseph Boinett, shot back, saying that Macharia should be arrested.
“I wish I had time to arrest this guy,” Boinett said. “He should be in some police station headed to court.”
Mary Daraja, a news editor at the Kenya Broadcasting Company, says the episode wasn’t shocking to Kenyans. But it generated sympathy for Macharia because he exposed a practice many Kenyans are ashamed of.
“It was just a confession being made by someone who believes that what he was doing is wrong but he’s doing it anyway and maybe he was asking for help,” Daraja says.
Macharia’s story, says Daraja, made Kenyans look inward.
“We Kenyans are also to blame because when we see a driver bribing the police, we keep quiet,” she says. “When we see a police officer committing a crime, we keep quiet.”
Macharia says he stayed off his route for two weeks. He was afraid that one of those cops would come after him.
He thought about that before he spoke up, but the reality of corruption ate at him. He had seen drivers refuse to pay bribes only to have police tow their vehicles. He himself had been to court every Monday for a year to fight what he says was a trumped-up ticket.
Everyday police corruption may seem small, he says, but it can also ruin Kenya’s future.
“I pity our children when they go to school and they see somebody taking money,” he says. “What that child will grow knowing [is] that you can buy freedom using money.”
Macharia did get back behind the wheel of his matatu. And police have so far, let him be.
“But there are others out there suffering,” he says. “Maybe I’m lucky because I was bold enough to be there and say it. But [others] are suffering a lot, they are suffering.”
The Independent Policing Oversight Authority did look into Macharia’s complaints. They told NPR that they found his stories believable and they had referred his case to the courts.
But since the independent watchdog was setup in 2012, the courts have reached verdicts in only two of their cases.