The Thrilling & Menacing Encounter with Kenyan Matatus

As a first-time visitor, you’ll need to be informed of the transportation options available for you within Kenya. The matatu bus is the most common form of public transport for ordinary people within Kenya to commute from one place to another. They are cheap, fast, lively and will give any new visitor a first-hand experience of the everyday Kenyan life…

A scuffle to enter a matatu in Nairobi.

As in most sub-Saharan cities, Matatu transportation in Kenya is highly characterized with disorderliness and ceaseless fare-hiking during peak hours. In Nairobi where I reside, matatu stages can easily be noticed by the signposts displaying their destination and fares on top of the loading matatu. There can be a long line of matatus, especially during midday as they wait for the first in the line to fill up. But this is the exact opposite at sundown when city commuters are rushing home. On each stage, you’ll find a long but slowly moving line of exhausted passengers waiting for matatus to turn up and pick them. And when one arrives, you’ll witness a disturbing commotion as folks rush to enter. Well, if you’re fatigued after a long hard day you might get shoved aside!

Nairobi’s notorious muggers love this chaotic moment and it can be their busiest time of the day as they take advantage of the confusion to rob unsuspecting passengers of their valuables. Personal items like smartphones, laptops, jewelry, and money are the most sought by these ‘long-fingered’ daytime thugs. In fact, you can’t even know that you’re being robbed due to the scuffles to enter the matatu.

As if your long day didn’t treat you badly enough, once inside a 14-seater matatu, you may be forced to share a single-person seat with another passenger, doesn’t matter his/her size. In the larger 30+ seater matatus, extra passengers will have to stand in the alley while holding on to the metal bars that extend the entire length of the matatu ceiling. Surprisingly, standing passengers pay the same fare as the seated ones.

A typical matatu on a Nairobi street.

In my first week as a Nairobi commuter, I had a hard time recalling the stage where matatus to my destination were parked. I always asked for directions from Nairobians but their responses were very confusing. If one told me to ‘take this direction, then reaching the end, another told me to ‘turn back’ but thank goodness b’se in the meantime I got to easily identify matatus to my place with their distinguished exterior designs. In my case, all matatus to my area in Embakasi are labeled either “Embassava SACCO” or “Tawala SACCO” with a white and blue painting for Embassava buses and yellow-green painting for Utawala buses. The term SACCO denotes any independent but government-regulated body under which a particular matatu is registered. Secondly, each residential area has a stage number which you have to identify on all matatus or their signposts. For example, matatus to the eastern parts of Nairobi can be identified with stage numbers from 130-180. Matatus to the western areas are identified with stage numbers from 100-120, and so on.

In my native Uganda, we call matatus “Taxi” so don’t get confused if you ask for a taxi and you’re shown the 14-seater minibus with a blue striped lining in its entire mid-exterior. But the first time I saw a matatu, I mistook it for a delivery truck since I saw it from the front. Kenyan 30+ seater matatus are built from truck bodies, notably the Isuzu trucks but the truck’s carry bed is modeled into a deck cabin that resembles a train carriage and the truck’s head is maintained. So in case matatu conductors need to signal the driver to stop for a passenger to board or alight, they’ll have to bang the side of the matatu so loud with their fists. This is so b’se of the matatu design meaning that the driver in the truck head won’t communicate directly with the conductor.

This one goes to the Huruma area.

However, if you’re a sort of person who enjoys riding in total quietness, never board any Kenyan matatu! First, most Kenyan matatu drivers are weirdly crazy drivers with an absolute disregard for traffic rules and passenger complaints about their excessive speeding always fall on deaf ears. Most Kenyan roads have big humps and huge potholes so when a matatu hits them, you’ll be left flying from your seat and hitting your head on the roof! On top of that, they overtake any living thing ahead of them and this might give you a false hope that you’re gonna reach your destination faster but waaah, when they reach a midway stage, they’ll be stationary for ages as they call out for the scarce passengers, especially in the middle of the day.

Rightly, let’s say everyone can become acclimated to all of the above nuisances but would you endure at least a 30-minute ride in a matatu with deafening loudspeakers that blast pompous music? Well, these are fixed just above the seats meaning that the music will be blared straight into your ears! While inside, you’ll be unable to make or receive a call, not even talking to your co-passenger. That’s the matatu menace but to my surprise, I’ve seen no passenger complaining maybe b’se they are accustomed to this craze but if you try raising a complaint, you’ll get belittled! Recently, the country’s health ministry raised a public concern that Kenyan commuters risked going deaf due to the powerful music blasted by the matatu operators. To fully comprehend that their music is extremely loud, you’ll even hear it while some meters away outside the matatu.

A few minutes after the matatu has hit the road, a conductor (conductors and drivers have their special uniforms) will start collecting transport fares from the passengers. If you hand them a bigger banknote, they’ll ask you to hold on till they get change. After some minutes they tend to forget so you’ll have to keep reminding them. The procedure for getting off a matatu is by walking to the exit door and request the conductor to have the matatu stopped for you to get off. Be sure to do this while several meters before you reach the get off point.

The flashy interior of a Kenyan Matatu

Kenyan matatus are renowned for their fancy multicolored exterior and interior designs that are aimed at giving them an edge in this business. You’ll find some having their exterior emblazoned with images of inspiring figures and their inscriptions. The most depicted ones are from the entertainment industry like Madonna, Chris Brown, Jay-Z, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, etc, from the political realm include the late Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, etc. Several European football teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are also displayed. Such graffiti displays resonates well with Kenya’s youthful population who venerate western lifestyle icons. It’s no wonder that most youths would prefer to enter a matatu embellished with their favorite icons/legends.

I have also observed that the interior of various matatus is plastered with inspirational quotations from notable legends. Other pimping you’ll find inside a matatu include the lined blinking LED lights but wealthy owners have taken the game by an extra length as they’ve started adding luxuries to design a very attractive interior décor with affluent stuff like seatback screens, huge Tv monitors on front decks and seat plug-in sockets. Well, the Kenyan matatu encounter can both be a thrilling and menacing one but certainly, you’ll end up bearing with the discomforts and get along with them just like the rest of Kenyan commuters do. I hope with this info, you’re having it handy on what to expect on your first ever matatu experience!

Cool Gang, eh!!??

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