Doug: The Kenyan Matatu – public transportation on steroids

August 14, 2011

It is physically impossible to come to Nairobi and not encounter a matatu. These small privately-owned vans are literally everywhere. From “Jesus Van” to “Cash Money”, they always have creative names. I saw an ad in the newspaper that said “Men are like matatus. If you miss one, another will come right along”. Whether that is true or not for Kenyan men, I’m not quite sure, but as far as matatus go, that’s a pretty accurate description. Whether you are being yelled at from across the street (if you’re an mzungu this happens a lot) by the guy trying to get you to ride in his matatu (This gets pretty frustrating and makes no sense. If I need to go somewhere, I’ll just tell you!), or choking down their beautiful exhaust, or almost getting run over by one in the street, these multi-colored vans are the heart and soul of Kenyan public transportation.

My friend Mary and I had the joy of taking multiple matatus last Saturday when we went to go visit the Westlands, an area of town outside Nairobi. After packing into a matatu with a bunch of other Kenyans, we rode for 30 minutes in the wrong direction (my bad…), facing snickers and laughs as we got out to jump into another matatu back the other direction toward downtown Nairobi. Both our matatu ride out to the Westlands, and then back to Nairobi were quite the adventures. At one point, as we bumped and bounced over dusty “roads” going through areas that were questionably under construction, we entered a packed traffic area where there were cars facing almost every direction in a 360 degree circle. There is a guy who drives the matatu, and then one who opens the sliding door and hangs onto the side, recruiting and ushering people inside. The recruiter jumped out as we sat in traffic, while the driver floored it onto and over a curb (legal?), cut through 3 lanes of traffic, and bounced back over another curb, just in time for the recruiter guy to jump back in and slide the door shut. No one in the van said a thing—apparently this is not out of the ordinary. Even more fun, our matatu home broke down directly in the center of a hairpin turn where 4 lanes of traffic were trying to get by and around us (some driving directly over the traffic “barrier”). Somehow it sputtered to life again after 5 minutes—once again all the Kenyans in the van didn’t say a thing, and just waited in silence for the predicament to be resolved. Another typical ride on the Kenyan matatu…


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