NAIROBI, KENYA -- The minibus, licensed for 22 passengers but carrying 40, was listing to the left as it sputtered out of town, bound for a dirt-floor suburb called Kawangware.

The left rear tire was bleeding air, the clutch needed work, the brake lights were out. The road license on the windshield belonged to a look-alike bus that at one time had passed inspection. Going downhill, the driver had the pedal to the metal. But not to worry.

A sign at the front of the passengers' compartment said, "Keep cool. Professional driver in control." Thus reassured, the passengers were squeezed together like kippers in a can.

This kind of vehicle -- overloaded and undermaintained, privately owned and going too fast -- is known in Kenya as a matatu. For 18 cents a ride, matatus carry about 40 percent of all mass transport passengers in this East African country.

The matatu is African free enterprise in the fast lane. It provides both an essential service for poor people and a daily threat to their existence.

Matatus are in it for the money. They crowd the thin white line between profits and mayhem. When they swerve across the line, they wind up in the newspapers. Headlines often read, "Another Horror Crash."

Four people were reported killed in a horrifying road accident in which 14 others were seriously injured and admitted to hospital at the weekend.

According to police reports, the accident occurred when a matatu carrying an unknown number of passengers overturned after the driver lost control while descending a hill.

The driver is said to have lost control when one of the matatu's rear tyres burst . . . . (Kenya Times)

After Kenya won independence in 1963, British colonial restrictions on living in Nairobi were lifted. The rural poor, seeking bright lights and cash wages, moved to Kenya's capital by the tens of thousands. Ramshackle suburbs encircled the city. The residents needed a way to get to work.

Kenya's founding father and then-president, Jomo Kenyatta, looked at the infant matatu industry in the 1960s and decreed it a social good. For the benefit of the poor who needed transport, matatu licensing was abolished.

The vehicles were set free to explore the frontiers of laissez faire capitalism.

Owners hired drivers who would be fired if they did not collect a minimum amount of money each day. If drivers collected more, they kept it. Drivers, in turn, hired conductors to collect money from passengers. Conductors, in turn, hired touts to whistle and yell and bully customers, to guard against thieves and to put nails beneath the tires of rival matatus.

Drivers developed a distinctive behind-the-wheel style. A judge recently described it as "without any regard for human lives."

Drivers race each other from bus stop to bus stop to have first crack at the passengers. To save time, they take off while passengers are still boarding. They work 18-hour days, and many of them stay alert by chewing khat, shrub with addictive, amphetamine-like leaves.

Owners, who take no responsibility for their drivers' mayhem, make lots of money. They keep their identity quiet. Many are senior government ministers and prominent businessmen.

Horror crashes have proliferated. In Kenya, 11 to 15 percent of traffic accidents involving injuries result in death. In the developed world, this figure is below 2 percent. The most recent figure in the United States was 1.7 percent, in 1985, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In recent years, the public has demanded that the matatu industry be cleaned up. Licensing was reinstituted in 1984. Last year, President Daniel arap Moi looked at the matatu industry and decreed it a social evil.

"They have become an agent of death and no longer a poor people's enterprise," Moi said.

Emboldened by the president's strong language, editorial writers at Kenyan newspapers have lambasted (but not named) matatu owners.

Matatu riders have adopted their own methods of criticism.

A mob set a matatu ablaze on Wednesday after it hit a 16-year-old girl who later died.

The matatu driver fled when the mob pounced on him after the accident, raining stones, kicks and rungu {clubs} on him. He fled to a nearby tea plantation, bleeding profusely from the head. (The Daily Nation)

Tom Akendo, 34, a matatu driver for nine years, goes to work at 4 a.m. six days a week. He leaves his wife and five children in bed and walks in darkness across the squatters' suburb of Kawangware to pick up a 1979, four-ton Isuzu minibus from the owner.

The owner, who runs a pharmacy in Nairobi, expects Akendo to collect at least 2,000 shillings a day. To get that, at 3 shillings per passenger, Akendo must break the law.

Throughout his 18-hour day, Akendo's matatu must be overloaded on its 10-mile trip between Kawangware and downtown Nairobi.

"It means you always have to find a way to avoid that cop," Akendo said.

Drivers have an advantage over policemen. They are in matatus. Most police are afoot -- the Kenyan government cannot afford to give them patrol cars.

Police set up speed and inspection traps, which drivers avoid. Like long-distance truckers in the United States, they warn each other of cops -- not with CB radios, but with hand signals.

"Then you either turn around, stop and let off some passengers or fold up a 100-shilling {$6.75} bill in your driver's license and hand it to the cop," says Akendo.

He says inspection roadblocks are especially onerous in the middle of the month when police officers are between monthly pay checks.

More than police, Akendo said, he worries about his conductor. The conductor is the one who collects the money from passengers.

"You really have to be on good terms with your conductor," Akendo said. He has had more than 10 conductors who left his employ after he determined they were chiseling on the receipts.

"After a while, you can feel from the weight of the bus how much money you are making," the driver said.

A barmaid narrowly escaped death yesterday when a speeding matatu rammed into a bar in Nairobi South B.

According to the owner of the bar, the Nissan matatu was heading for the neighbouring Golden Gate Estate but the driver lost control after overtaking another vehicle, and smashed into the bar, displacing chairs and tables. Luckily, there were no patrons inside the bar. (Kenya News Agency)

To avoid unwieldy government regulation and lessen the likelihood of violent retribution from the public, Kenya's matatu industry has made an effort in recent years to regulate itself.

Newer, more comfortable minibuses have been purchased. Commuter service has been regularized, with route numbers, frequent service and established bus stops. Matatus are licensed to travel specific routes by the Matatu Vehicle Owners Association (MVOA). A drivers who tries to horn in on somebody else's route, without a license, finds that his tires go flat.

Last year the MVOA adopted a comprehensive code of conduct for drivers, conductors and touts.

Members vowed to work at gaining the respect of the public.

Last week, in the overloaded, unlicensed matatu bound for Kawangware, the tout was whistling and pounding his fist on a fender. It was evening rush hour.

The driver did not want to pull out without more fares. The passengers, their noses scrunched into the backs of their neighbors' necks, were stoical. When the conductor and the tout had rounded up and packed in a suitable number of fares, the driver slipped the worn-out clutch and took them home.

It took 20 minutes to drop off 40 clerks, cleaning ladies and messengers. Circling back to town, the driver stopped at an Esso station and told the attendant to put air in the leaky left rear tire.