Not so long ago, one Mr. John Michuki, the late, brought order in a much-touted chaotic industry. Some of us too young to remember I have to break it down a bit. There were the buses with a seating capacity of 45-55 and with an unknown standing capacity. There were also mini buses with a capacity of 35 and an unknown overloading capacity. Then came the rise of the popular 20 seater Nissans – the brand so strong albeit the Toyota Vans being more popular. “I’m taking a Nissan to town”, was a common statement. Loved even by me for the simple fact you did not have to stand. But here’s a throwback, remember we used to fit in four guys on every row of seats? Lucky for you if you did not have to face five plus guys followed with the statement “kaa square!”.
Then grew the so called “Matatu Culture”. A culture not very much our own. A Western brand of things. On my random account, it could have been 99% a Westernised idolised culture. Graffiti from yonder celebrating people who have never stepped into Africa, people who could care less about what happens in the “country” Africa.
I was convinced some time back that there should be an English word for our Matatus. Overheard it in some documentary talking of the “Share Taxi” culture in South Africa. We can call that one a shadow of the Kenyan one. You may have heard of the stories when guys used to pay 3 pence for a ride which in Kiswahili is “Mapeni Tatu” or short version “Matatu”
From the West side of the world to the East side of things here in Nairobi. The culture blossomed very well in Eastlands. Things were so bad. The boarding fare could be let’s say KES 50, but the actual fare you pay could be KES 100, and woe unto you if you don’t have “loose” money. (if you are reading this article in 10 years later, you may want to adjust for inflation and maybe corruption etc.). Things were also so good for some, the graffiti artists (the creative force, much respect to them tough I wish there was some mental challenge to what they do instead of drawing grass related items), screen sellers, sound systems, interior…
Order had to be brought in. We now have your normal 14 sitters, 25, 33, 45 and so on. Step one was to ensure all the Matatu operated in a standardised form. This was of course met with resistance, a strike that went on for weeks and almost paralysed operations in the country. But the government stood its ground, after all they knew these guys couldn’t go for long without returning to operations. They’ve got bills to pay, children to feed…
All these while the government is busy referring to the matatus as public transport. What you need to know is that Kenya does not have public transport. It is amusing when the government refers to privately owned buses, minibuses and vans as “public transport”. Even when implementing the cashless system that failed, they still referred to “public transport”. Public transport died with Nyayo bus somewhere in the 80s when Kenya Bus (the Stagecoach) was born out of a scandal. Of course, most of the things that go on in our brand of Kenya do not go without a scandal somewhere. Remember the seatbelts scandal? Speed governors?
The President gave an order, an executive one, to allow the “creation of jobs”. Allow the youth to express their creativity (sometimes vulgar). I saw one with some strange and funny text by the driver’s door, “My Driving Scares Me Too”. If it died in the East, it was reborn in the Dusty South, a place far away from Nairobi, a place some claim you need a passport to reach there… Ongata Rongai.
I doubt there’s a suburb that can now claim the return of this culture like Rongai. I must admit, I do admire the creative work behind these matatus. It is our own version of FMF (Funk Master Flex) or West Coast Customs. The admiration ends there because what follows is the chaos, the very same chaos the government tried to put an end to. The deafening music, the whistling exhausts (I bet they do not know how much damage this does to the vehicle), and then there’s what I refer to us the death escort i.e. the driver!
Is it a wonder then that most fatal accidents involve these death escorts? I normally say you can link anything wrong with Kenya to corruption. There’s a critical failure in the entire transport system and to remedy this will need a culture change… some sort of rebranding.
There’s an unbecoming anger, some sort of growing road rage by road users in Kenya. We must remember it starts from thyself. Be the one that gives way to the driver ahead, not the competing one. Be the artist that draws the Kenyan Culture on the Matatus. There’s so much to draw locally, from Genge Legends such as Jua Cali (I had to… love his music), Hip Hop legends such as Ukoo Flani and E-Sir, Gospel forces such as Mercy Masika, Daddy Owen… and this is just music alone!
Be the owner of the Matatu with responsible Graffiti, not the strippers on the 125 or the weed on the 58!
… and then maybe, just maybe we can Kenyanise a responsible Matatu Culture… Really?!