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Published:May 13th, 2006 02:19 EST
The Matatu Phenomenon in Nairobi

The Matatu Phenomenon in Nairobi

By Juliet Maruru

It’s 10 a.m. in a little town just outside of Nairobi. I want to go to the city center so all I have to do is walk out of my home a few meters to the transport terminal. There are several of  terminals in the three kilometers between the beginning of the roadside settlement just after the Maasai River and the end of it just before the Miricho River. In fact, come to think of it, you can stop a matatu to pick you up just about anywhere on the road.

A matatu is a van, minivan, bus, or minibus that serves as the mode of transport in Kenya. Matatus got their name about ten years ago when the fare cost at the most, three shilling. Three in Swahili is tatu and the transport vehicles were thus named matatu.

Today, the matatu transport is an industry that has boards, unions, and tailor-made insurance packages available for matatu owners. In the past,  the Kenyan government had tried to streamline the industry but in the end, the matatu phenomenon has retained its unique identity.
For starters, matatus have categories. There is the ordinary matatu; anyone can get into an ordinary matatu and be relatively comfortable.

The music, if there is any is sedate and generally bearable for all ages. Most likely, the radio station playing will be Classic 105, which plays old classics [old here is relative but generally means 70’s, 80’s, and very early 90’s music].  Another option for an ordinary matatu would be Metro FM, which plays reggae and reggae tone versions of most songs. Occasionally, you’ll hear Kiss FM, which plays latest songs and delivers the latest celebrity gossip. However, the volume will always be at a moderate level because usually, the older generation will go for the ordinary matatu.  

The outside of an ordinary matatu will be painted one color interrupted by the standard yellow line required by the law. One or two business advertisement stickers might decorate the inside. You might also see a sticker reminding you to fasten your seatbelt.

There is the gospel matatu, anyone can get into a gospel matatu, but if you are not religious, it might not be the most comfortable mode of transport for you. Gospel matatus always play gospel music. If they play the radio, it will be Hope FM, Family FM, or Waumini FM. Music may be loud or moderate depending on the driver and conductor.
You can identify the gospel matatu on the outside from the banner across the side or front. It might read Jesus Saves, Jehovah-Jireh or some variation of those two. Inside, you will see stickers that talk about God, Jesus, or the Bible. You will also see ads about a gospel conference, crusade, or gospel music launch. There might also be a few business ad stickers.

The teeny matatu is a whole other side of matatu you might find fascinating or irritating depending on where you stand. A teeny matatu’s occupants will be teenagers and those who used to be teenagers not so long ago [within a decade or two]. The music will inevitably be very, very loud [except when there is police officer just up ahead on the roadside]. The music itself will be the very latest releases. They will play Beanie man, Wyclef Jean, Sean Paul, Shakira as well as Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, just whoever may be hot at the time. They will also play a lot of local music, too. In fact, many Kenyan musicians release their singles on teeny matatus.

You will know a teeny matatu from its bright, bold colors, artistic decorations and the name, LA Lakers, Sean Paul, Necessary Noise to illustrate just a few. Fine artists and decorative artists get to showcase their work on teeny matatus both on the outside and on the outside.
Everyone on the teeny matatu seems to know the other, or so I thought. However, a younger friend of mine told me the trick is in what you wear. You could actually go sare [free], if you dress right. But a good idea is to aim for the cheaper fare. So I’m wearing fashionable jeans, a pretty bright colored top which shows my curves [curves are good in Kenya] and just the right footwear, delicate little heels that make me walk as though I am delicate, too.

And there I am at the side of the road. I don’t even have to signal for it to stop for me. The driver spots me [it’s true, they wouldn’t’ have seen me in my writer’s overalls, hat and boots, no way!] and maneuvers the matatu, a minibus, right up to where I’m at. The conductor greets me in sheng, the local youth dialect, with a big wide smile and I seriously resist the temptation to look over my shoulder and see whom he’s talking to. 

I have to keep a straight face because I have a very strong need to wince at the blast of sound that hits me once I’m inside. When I sit down, I can feel the decibels vibrating against my derriere. After a while though, I manage to relax. If I don’t think about what my mom says about loud music and deafness, I can actually enjoy the beats.

Before the conductor, a handsome young man who has managed to wear the required uniform colors albeit in trendy style, gets to pick my fare, I have a chance to look around and admire the art and art graffiti. The young woman sitting beside me is dressed as I might have on a normal day. I’m guessing she is a journalism or engineering student and would really rather be on an ordinary matatu. She pays 50 shillings, I pay 40 shillings. I’m not surprised to see that the hot gals on the other side of the aisle go sare. 

That’s the matatu phenomenon in a nutshell.