Machakos Country Bus Station is a name that evokes nostalgic memories for upcountry travellers most who call Nyanza, parts of Eastern and Rift Valley, and Western Kenya their rural homes.
The bus station located on Landhies Road, just opposite Muthurwa market is a 'jungle' in non-forested land where survival is only for the fittest.
It teems with people from all walks of life, those coming into Nairobi and those leaving the city for their rural homes. Another conspicuous feature are the public transport vehicles without departure points which use it as boarding point.
The stage, is so popular to the point that it has earned the nickname 'airport'.
But behind this veneer of 'popularity' lies sad tales told in both hushed and loud tones by passengers who continue to use the station and also those who fled from the harsh reality that greets travellers once they use the stage.
Country Bus is home to extortionist gangs and criminals who mete out harassment, robbery and all manner of injustices to helpless passengers.
There is a little respite during the day but when the night falls, passengers are literally 'kidnapped' and 'sold' to buses of the extortionist groups. The travellers are at their mercy, they decide how much such passengers pay and their word is law.
Taking advantage of financially constrained passengers, the criminals hiding under the title of 'bus agents' have occasioned untold suffering to upcountry travellers with stolen luggage, lost family members, robbery and paying forced and exorbitant fares being the order of the day. Take for instance Kennedy Mulunda, a resident of Nairobi but a native of Kakamega County. One day in 2015, he left for the stage to board a bus to his rural home. The journey was nightmare.
Just at the entrance of the bus stage, Mr Mulunda, who had his baggage on both hands was suddenly accosted by four young men, blocking his way.
"In broad daylight, at 10am, the two young men grabbed my bags, one held me by the arm and started dragging me towards some parked buses, while the other, commanded me to follow them to the bus they would pick," he says.
Tired of the push and pull, and now fearing for what may happen next, he complied and went to their bus, which according to them was to cost him Sh500 to his destination but shock on him. He was told to pay Sh1,000.
"After pleading with them, they brought the amount down to Sh750," he narrates.
He says the bus spent at least another four hours at the stage, and embarked on the journey well into the evening. That was his turning point and he vowed never to use the Machakos Bus Stage again. Mr Mulunda's ordeal is not an isolated case.
Mr Isaac Wasike, who one day was travelling to his rural home in Kimilili, had a near-similar ordeal, albeit worse. The youngster, who had gone to the bus stage at 4am in the morning, to catch an early bus and reach his home a little earlier in the day, was also waylaid by the youth.
They made away with his phone and the money.
Kennedy Ondari, not his real name, says the gang will not allow any passenger walk freely to their buses of choice.
"They forcefully escort everyone they see carrying a luggage and heading towards country bus up to the main stage. On reaching the bus terminus, they demand any amount of money they want ranging from Sh50 to Sh200," says a visibly tired Ondari, jaded by the harassment
He says that many travellers get robbed and conned in broad daylight while some are forced to board vehicles they do not even prefer as the 'bus agents' threaten passengers that whether they give in or not, they will still pay them.
But James Vokoli, a bus agent for the coaches plying Kakamega route, says that it is not their choice to behave rowdily.
He said he became an agent in 2016 after failing to get a job in his home county.
Mr Vokoli says that due to competition for customers some of them resort to roughing up commuters to fill up as many buses as possible to enhance the commission they will get at the end of the day.
"On dry days we can get Sh1,000 as we can only fill up about three buses but during holidays and rush seasons, we get as much as Sh3,000 in a day as we sometime fill up to seven buses in a day," says Vokoli.
He claims that the harassment comes about when a passenger is uncooperative but he also agrees that some of them take advantage of their numbers to steal from passengers.
"Every day you get a man joining us and it is hard to know each and everyone's behaviour but we are not criminals. I am a Form Four leaver who has come to Nairobi to fend for myself and my family," he says.
Tomorrow: The plight of bus operators at the hands of cartels