matatu (or matatus) noun: (in Kenyan culture) privately owned minibuses ply set routes, run from termini, and are used for both inter- and intra-city travel.
Synonym: nganya. ( common word used by the locals)
It’s your typical beautiful Sunday night in Nairobi. The air so fresh, no traffic human or otherwise, city lights so bright, minimal number of hawkers, you know what I’m talking about. An evening stroll or drive around the city under the sun, on said day, is nothing less than magical. You get to take in and enjoy the great city of Nairobi for what it really is. Even the ever busy and bustling downtown area is peaceful for a hot second. I could go on and on about my city my town but on this specific night, my matatu ride back home is more interesting.
I haven’t been on all routes in Nairobi so let me take you through my typical footsubishi come matatu ride back home on this Sunday. I don’t know if you can tell but I am extremely pumped about writing this piece because the matatu rides always leave you with a story to tell. From them being driven on the wrong side of the road to ducking the traffic police and living real life grand-theft auto. Let me not even get started on the drama we go through when they go on strike.
For those of you who haven’t ridden a matatu, take a seat and let me educate you (well now that I write this I realize you’re probably seated, but hey). There are different types of matatus, there’s the minibus looking types, the basic matatu looking ones and the god father head and body types. There’s also the quiet ones and the extremely loud ones breathing obscenity with the blaring music, hydraulics, loud exhaust pipes and the graffiti style artwork.
Granted, I would rather ride in the minibus looking ones because of space, comfort and the few number of passengers, but I personally don’t get to enjoy that luxury riding back home. Route 19/60 we have the head and body types, ask papa Jones.
I won’t even lie I used to be helluva scared to ride these ones, my paranoia told me the head would disengage from the body any freaking time, death you guy. lol
So I get into one of the fresh matatus. I normally ride in the quiet ones but today I just wanted the loud music to soothe my soul. The smell of an ending weekend and Monday right around the corner will make you go to extremes. There I am cruising in my boomtwaf matatu all lit like the 4th of July lights (I imagine) down Jogoo road, not a shred of care in the world. The bright “life’s good” very inchy TV greets you with some good good reggae music.
Disclaimer: if you have a phobia of fast recklessly driven cars with music so loud it pumps your heart for you, these cars are not for you. But you know I’m about that fast life for sure.
The makanga / conductor comes round to collect fare and says it is seventy shillings. 70 bob? This guy got some nerve on him!!! On a Sunday? 70 freaking shillings? Kwani I’m going to Rongai? But I was feeling philanthropic on this day so I just paid my due. The usual complaints arose from passengers who thought the fare was hiked. But you know, these aren’t the types of nganyas to bring attitude in. Like they will leave you stranded in the middle of the road. The conductors also started squabbling over their cuts on the fare money.
The highlight of my ride was definitely when a lady carrying an infant wanted to alight in the middle of traffic. There’s a Kenyan matatu proverb that says, “kupanda ni popote, kushuka ni stage”. But nooo, this lady was in a rush. So one of the battalion of the conductors offered to help her carry her child off the matatu. The driver clearly didn’t get the memo because as soon as the conductor holding the child alighted, the traffic cleared and the driver sped off leaving the mother in the car with the child with a complete stranger. Efforts by the other conductors to stop the car were fruitless for about three minutes. Finally the driver stopped just long enough for the lady to alight and we sped off. I do wonder if they were reunited.
The matatu culture is deeply embedded in the Kenyan culture. We have embraced it and made it a part of who we are. Riding in a matatu is a pride to many, nothing about social status. It unites us as Kenyans and in my opinion even strengthens our nationalism. There are obvious pros and cons to this culture. I personally have a problem with loud conductors who pull off stunts on the road and gas up the driver about his recklessness so much so that he over speeds. Safari rally my friend, not tonight I beg. This poses a threat to countless number of lives on the road and let’s not get started on the emotional trauma. Punguza Mahewa Dere. Matatus used to be known for being hubs of criminal and gang related activity back in the day but with the many regulation boards created it has subsided significantly. Though it is always advisable to be alert and careful of ones belongings when in a matatu. Not necessarily from internal threats but the external ones as well. Better safe than sorry honey.
It’s also important to take into account what kind of person one is before boarding a matatu. For the quiet conservatives, the loud ones with the crazy conductors will just ruin your whole experience of matatus.
Matatus are great in the fact that they are convenient for any mwananchi, comfortable, economic and easily accessible to each and every one. They also do a great deal of promoting the various different cultures of the world. They play all sorts of music from all the corners of the world. From your common mugithi and rhumba to Bob Marley and even Jay Z. They bring the world around us closer to us. Taking us through the world in one ride. They are also great in the many employment opportunities they offer to the Kenyan youth, unbiased of gender or sex. Women in Kenya are now empowered to do jobs that were conventionally referred to as men jobs, with some matatus having female drivers as well as conductors. Girl power!! Also the various creative opportunities offered to the youth out here with an artistic proess to express themselves, in drawing the graffiti on the bodies of these matatus.
Matatu culture in Kenya is so deep that we usually hold award ceremonies for the illest most popping matatus in the +254. Here’s a link (https://youtu.be/u65RDe7gbmg) to get your juices up about what the matatus look and sound like. The excitement on the Kenyans faces tells it all. Songs have been written about our matatus for example https://youtu.be/pIIPW9FQ1CE. We’ve had the likes of Trey Songz riding one of our mats you guy!
Mad respect for sure. The matatu culture has attained global recognition and captured a worldwide audience as the world tries to understand this unique way of life Kenyans have accepted. Here’s a link to CNN’s coverage on the same for example https://youtu.be/psgst9LGnWo
Last but not least, don’t be shy to experiment and explore on the different types of matatus out there, they just might surprise you. Also, you’re allowed to talk to strangers sometimes. You never know who you’re seated next to and it doesn’t bite to say hi and be kind. Matatus can be great spots for random conversations, all with great caution of course. Also, generosity by paying your neighbour’s fare once in a while never hurt anybody, you will definitely feel good about yourself. Preaching good deeds and good vibes your way. The matatu scene in Kenya has grown significantly over the years, big up yourself fam 🙂
I am sure you have some epic matatu rides that just left you surprised, do share your exciting crazy stories on the comment section below. We could all do with a laugh (or cry) lol.
Hakuna matata kwa matatu .