From the affluent denizens living in gated communities to the inhabitants of hovels in slums, everyone in Kenya will give you an earful about his or her experience as a passenger in a matatu — the minibus taxis that can take you into every nook and cranny of the country.
They wind through traffic like speed demons with a death wish, brakes screeching as they overtake in hairpin manoeuvres while cursing other motorists as their touts menacingly thump the sides of slower cars. Their tyre axles make creaking sounds as they thud into gaping potholes and bump their mechanical manhoods on to pedestrian walkways. For the matatus, any path is a highway.
And they are impossible to miss. They are splashed in creative psychedelic colours and depict hip-hop stars and celebrities like Usain Bolt. Every matatu has unique graffiti — and the creative minds behind this business charge anything from R4 000 to R10 000 to transform them from drab white machines into sleek and hip juggernauts.
The interiors, meanwhile, reek of extravagance. They are furnished with comfortable velvet seats, sparkling wooden ceilings, muted ultraviolet lights and tinted windows, with blown-up photos of music stars, R40 000 music systems and even 52-inch plasma TVs. Their tinted windows are covered in graffiti and there are small stickers flavoured with street wisdom: “We are not saying you are fat but if you occupy two seats. PAY!!” and “Why use a toothbrush when you only have a tooth?” or “Even sewage water extinguishes fire.”
Each matatu has its own name, of course. You will find Twitter, Osama, Rihanna, Mariga, Obama, Lewinsky, Mandela— I’m sure somewhere in Kenya there has to be a matatu called Gaddafi.
The matatu system works something like this: as with many other public means of transport, a matatu has a driver and a conductor. But that’s where the similarity end. Matatus are driven Formula One-style with the tout forever hanging on a railing at the door, springing in and out of the moving minibus like a dribbling basketball.
On an ordinary day the driver battles with Nairobi’s frenetic traffic as the tout points out spaces in traffic, bullies other motorists and constantly shouts to the driver to go left, right, up, down, stop, bulldoze! It seems the only thing a tout doesn’t have is a steering wheel.
There seems to be a madness that engulfs a person when he grasps the steering wheel of a matatu, I suppose for good reason. Time is of the essence. The driver has to pick up more passengers and drive ever faster because just about everyone needs money from him — from the owner of the matatu to criminal gangs — and there is never-ending competition from rivals. For every matatu that crops up on the scene, criminal gangs extort money for security, forcefully endorsing a jobless member of their own gang to be employed either as a tout or a driver.
Protection cartels own the route, as if they themselves have constructed the road, and extort a daily fee of R20 that can include unknown fees that escalate for no known reasons. And since matatus are there to break rules, they often stop to pick up or drop off passengers at undesignated stops in the city centre, only to fall into the arms of the hawk-eyed city council guards who can demand an instant bribe of up to R1 000. And if they don’t cough up the agreed-upon amount, the city council guards will usher them to a cell.
Usually the matatu crew starts work between 3am and 4am. This gives them time to take drunks home and perhaps by evening they will have made an extra R100 to add to their approximately R50-a-day rounds.
During the day, when the driver gets tired or needs to go for a bathroom or lunch break, he hands over the car to a trusted jobless driver who goes for a squadi, or a round trip. This driver is paid R10 a trip and he makes squadis with any available matatu. This process is repeated by the tout who hands over to kamjesh — anyone of the army of jobless youths who tout for passengers at bus stops and are paid R2 to fill the minibus.
It was just a few years back that the government first decided to tame the rowdy matatu. Ordinary folk boycotted them and walked enthusiastically to work for several days until the matatu submitted to the will of the people. They finally installed safety belts, there was no overloading, commuters were picked up only at designated bus stops and they had to adhere to a speed limit. They were made to wear an unsavoury maroon uniform and an ugly yellow line was drawn on the sides of vehicles to show they were in public service. But in time the rules gradually broke down.
The government plans to rein them in again at the end of this year. It says the popular 14- and 29-seater minibuses will be replaced by buses to decongest the city’s traffic and improve road safety. It’s an endgame the matatu owners seem to have accepted and they are now forming joint companies to buy buses.
Although the matatu industry employs many decent guys, the press has labelled the industry as being run by gangsters. And, as the deadline approaches, matatu drivers have started looking for jobs in bus companies. Their future is uncertain and many of them could end up jobless.
And the media, which have run endless stories about the industry, have taken a wait-and-see approach as the implementation period nears. As for me, I’ll definitely miss the matatu, especially on those days when I’m running late. After all, tra-velling in the matatu usually means avoiding queues and traffic jams. Most passengers get to their appointments on time.
Munene Kilongi is a freelance writer and videographer based in Nairobi