On the Matatu


In Nairobi, the importance of public transportation can hardly be overstated. At one time, the city’s fleet of buses was sent forth to fulfill this need. Despite freely admitting passengers to vehicles already drastically overloaded, demand always outpaced supply. With a brash entrepreneurial spirit, the outlaw independent taxi service was born. The name taken by these renegade commute services was “Matatu”. The Matatu’s combination of high speed, low fare, frequent pickup, and multiplicity of routes quickly made it very popular. By the time the Kenyan government felt that something had to be done about this feral human mover service, it was too late. With commendable wisdom they realized that, like a symbiotic creature, the Matatu had so insinuated itself in the Nairobi way of life that to remove it would be far too detrimental to bear. So, the Matatu was legalized, routes were established, and the commuter was served.


The Matatu is almost more a living thing than a vehicle. They are typically a Japanese make of a small van. They are a bit smaller outside than a typical American minivan, but are far more sparse and somewhat more roomy in the interior. The Matatu is operated by two intrepid men, the far more visible being the “Tout”. The Tout is the man you will see hanging out the open door whistling and gesturing to potential passengers as he glides by at about 40 kph. The driver is much less visible as he is bending all his will on his vehicle and the Nairobi traffic. Like a blue fin tuna, the Matatu driver must constantly glide and slip through the waves of fellow Matatus and other vehicles to be in a constant state of collecting new passengers. For, like the tuna, the Matatu must be filling its belly at all times to remain in motion for long. These three intrepid souls, the Tout, the driver, and the vehicle work with a near telepathic system of communication to form the Matatu.


The coloration of the Matatu is generally a base of white, though you may see variations. This base is then slathered with infinite variations of racing stripes, official looking markings, hip hop slogans, advertisements, particle board and what have you. One of the most endearing markings of the Matatu is what might be called “the parting phrase”. Many Matatu will have a phrase in large letters across the rear windshield. The phrase might be something along the lines of “Alligator System”, “The Ranger Kid”, or “King Driver”.


To become proficient in the use of the Matatu will take some time. However, intimacy with the Matatu is immediate. To ride in a Matatu is an experience in and of itself. To ride in a vehicle of its size along with 20 other adults and any number of infants is inherently an intimate act. The amount of squeezing, jostling, and sliding together you must do to board and alight from the vehicle is surprising. Take into account that while in the Matatu you may be listening to very loud music in dense traffic with dubious mechanical facility surrounding you, and you have to form a very real level of trust. It is unremarkable to see a Matatu stuck in a “jam”, heavily loaded, suddenly turn off the road onto the dusty sidewalk and honk its way through the pedestrians.


The city has taken notice of the problems growing in the Matatu ranks. New regulations of passenger restrictions, seatbelt enforcement, and uniform paint schemes are to be implemented within days. Only time will tell if the will of the city government can overcome that wily breed of transportation. The Matatu is a charming if disreputable rogue. Rogues are not known for their compliance to authority. A question remains, that if fewer passengers are allowed in the vehicle, and the number of vehicles is restricted, where will the displaced people go?


It is my recommendation that if you find yourself in Nairobi, you should try the Matatu. Certainly, it will not suit everyone, but if you wish to see a real slice of Nairobi subculture, it is a great place to start. You will also find yourself on very close terms with Kenyans in short order. My suggestion is that if you are in a Matatu becoming nervous, simply remember the blue fin tuna. Resign yourself to the nature of the situation and keep your eye open for your place to alight.


-Toby Lunn


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