Blind to the matatu

Strikes against new regulations and reforms of Nairobi’s matatu sector by its workforce are nothing new and regularly bring the Kenyan capital to a standstill. On March 8th, operators of the colourful minivans and buses organised a procession to bring a petition against their exclusion from official meetings of the Board of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NAMATA) regarding the future of Nairobi’s urban transport. They claim that they are being left out of important decisions that affect their employment. Their struggle brings to mind the question by popular Kenyan musician Muthoni Drummer Queen (MDQ) in one of her famous songs: “Nai Ni Ya Who?” Whose Nairobi is it?

The matatu has served as the dominant mode of commuter transport since colonial rule in Kenya, carrying approximately 70% of the urban population every day. Initiatives such as Digital Matatus, as previously discussed here, highlight their central role in Nairobi and how they have become accessible to the population despite their informal status. Yet, government attempts to phase out 14-seater minivans and recent plans to introduce a bus rapid transit (BRT) system without including transport workers reveal how national development schemes dismiss existing forms of informal transport and exacerbate uncertainty for urban dwellers already living in precarious conditions.

In 2008, President Kibaki introduced “Vision 2030” and “Nairobi Metro 2030”, two national strategies aiming to build “a globally competitive and prosperous country with a high quality of life by 2030.” Developed with support from American management consulting firm McKinsey, the plan seeks to integrate Kenya in the flow of global capital and attract foreign investment, exemplifying global trends in neoliberal policy that focus on market solutions to development. It proposes new, standardised systems of mass transport managed through public-private partnerships without plans to build on the matatu economy or absorb its workforce. The omission of Nairobi’s most widely used mode of public transportation from blueprints for the city, and spaces where such decisions are made, sheds light on the larger contradictions of forms of urban planning that are termed neoliberal:

First, these plans increase uncertainty over livelihoods rather than reducing it. Employment relations between matatu owners and operators are highly unequal and exploitative for workers. Without formal contracts, most operators enjoy little to no legal protection and they have to pay high daily usage fees that sometimes exceed daily profits. This unequal relationship was also highlighted by protestors in March, who noted that matatu owners were included in NAMATA meetings about BRT while they were not. Navigating this inequality and their precarious working conditions, workers are known to use transgressive practices (such as speeding or overcrowding) to increase profit margins and ensure they receive an income at the end of the day, which has contributed to occupational stigma and a contentious relationship with authorities. At the same time, although seemingly in conflict with the government, the matatu as a space has also been used for political campaigns and some matatu owners themselves are political elites, revealing a complex and intimate relationship between the matatu and the state. As a public-private partnership, BRT proposals add another layer of complexity, bringing in new corporate partners but excluding matatu operators.

Vision 2030 claims it will improve “quality of life and inclusiveness in the region,” seeking to promote employment and reduce poverty. To the contrary, however, the plans have generated uncertainty and anxiety among matatu crews. Matatu spokesperson and former driver Joseph Nderitu articulates this anxiety by asking: “How many jobs will be lost and what will be done to support the many poor when they lose their jobs?”

Second, the matatu economy exemplifies notions of entrepreneurship and innovation, key phrases in Nairobi Metro 2030, and yet these plans do not envision a place for the entrepreneurial matatu in Nairobi’s future. In her 2017 book, Matatu, Kenda Mutongi traces the history of this economy, revealing how matatus emerged in colonial Nairobi in the 1950s as a response to racist exclusionary policies and a lack of transport for black commuters. Responding to the growing need for transportation, Kenyans owning private cars started to provide transportation for commuters in return for a small fare, giving rise to the matatu industry. The number of matatus grew significantly after independence in 1963, creating a large informal network and contributing to economic growth of the newly independent nation.

Aligned with free market ideology, competition currently drives the matatu economy and matatu owners and operators devise various strategies to beat the competition by branding their vehicles with special features. Often, matatus include references to global brands, such as Nike, and they serve as a platform for musicians to share their music, promoting public consumption. Matatu crews embrace the exact notions of innovation and competitiveness set out in Kenya’s development blueprints and firms have even recognised matatus as sites of marketing. Rather than capitalising on this potential, as has been done in the case of taxis in South Africa, omitting matatus from national plans for development suggests that the government does not acknowledge their contribution to the Kenyan economy.

Third, contrary to creating a unique city identity as envisioned in Vision 2030 and Nairobi Metro 2030, the plans ultimately fragment Nairobi by dismissing the connections and identities created and sustained by the matatus. While the plans focus primarily on infrastructural and economic development, they are also a project of representation sketching out a specific image of future Nairobi. Spray-painted matatus with special features, such as loud speakers or flatscreens, have become famous under the name manyanga and receive much attention from the public, as shown by the emergence of Matwana Matatu Culture and the so-called “Nganya Awards” that highlight the “most pimped matatus” in annual ceremonies.

The anthropologist Mbugua wa Mungai provides a detailed analysis of matatu graphics and fashion in his 2013 book, Nairobi’s Matatu Men: Portrait of a Subculture, arguing that matatu culture has become a key vehicle to understanding Kenyan society. Rather than standardising and defining one kind of “Nairobi-ness,” he illuminates how matatus offer different experiences through their music and graphics, ranging from a notorious “bad boy” to religious imagery. Indeed, matatus display different identities that reflect Nairobi’s heterogeneity and commuters can assert their specific identity by entering a specific matatu. With their strategies to counter competition and navigate uncertainty, matatu workers thus also create outlets for the production and consumption of popular culture, where Nairobians express their aspirations and anxieties, make sense of their relationship with Nairobi and reveal frictions and contradictions of life in the city. Although claiming it seeks to “carve out a niche for the city, uniquely its own,” Nairobi Metro 2030 fails to tap into the city’s existing uniqueness and ultimately reduces the city to its place in the global economy. By attempting to homogenise a heterogenous city, the plan ultimately flattens and fragments Nairobi identity.

As nations across the globe shift to neoliberal mass transit schemes, we should not only analyse state policy but also ask what happens to city identities and the subaltern. Who makes the city and whose city is it?

This article was originally published by Africa is a Country.

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Celia Breuer
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