Going down the Great Rift
Meet the matatu, one of Kenya’s 24,000 privately owned and operated mini-buses. They are the country’s main form of public transport, taking 12 million Kenyan commuters to and from work each day. It can often be a grit-your-teeth-and-hope-to-live-to-tell-the-tale form of transport. The decrepit state of some of the vehicles, reckless driving and overloading are frequent causes of the country’s large numbers of road deaths.
Government attempts to regulate the industry regularly stall. But whatever their shortcomings, there is always a matatu to be had, and their fares are relatively affordable. They provide the only means for many traders to transport their goods to market.
In fact you could say that matatus are an example of free market enterprise at its most vibrant/rampant – depending on your stance. This is especially true in the country’s capital Nairobi, now home to 3 million souls and counting. The competition to secure key commuter routes across the unregulated urban sprawl can be cut throat. Matatu owners hire young men as drivers and touts, and since they earn a cut of the takings, the inclination to make the maximum return from every journey, and to beat competitors to the queue of waiting passengers, can lead to hair-raising practices. ‘Undertaking’ or cutting up on inside lanes and pavements is a particular Kenyan driving style. When we lived in Nairobi there were also anguished letters to the local press from matatu users, saying how they had been physically ‘kidnapped’ by touts, forcing them to ride a particular bus when the did not want to.
And not only that, when it rains, the fares go up.
Matatu stop in Westlands, Nairobi
These two photos of yellow matatus were taken in the late ‘90s and are bit old hat when it comes to the exterior paintwork. But even back then many buses were mobile art galleries. In recent times a vehicle’s ‘look’ has become part and parcel of the competition war. Owners commission the hottest young graffiti artists to paint their matatus’ livery. The expectation is that a well ‘pimped’ vehicle will up the takings. And this is the vibrant side of the matatu business. It is creating employment opportunities for educated and creative young Kenyans who finish school but cannot find work. They have a lot to say for themselves and considerable flair. Their style is increasingly sophisticated and western influenced. Go matatu spotting and you will soon grasp what is trending in popular culture and political opinion.
Then there is the loud music, especially hip hop. This is another ‘on board’ feature designed to attract and secure clientele. The touts say it brings in the beautiful girls and stylish guys, and is all about creating a cool atmosphere. Needless to say, the Kenyan Government has also attempted to ban the music, but enforcement is another matter.
The intense competition for business has been taking the matatu in other directions. Over 1,000 Nairobi matatus have recently gone high-tech. Commuter journeys from the city suburbs can take up to 2 hours, so providing free wi-fi has been proving a significant draw. Vuma Online was launched last April by Kenya’s biggest telecom company, Safaricom. Now passengers can pass the time stuck in the capital’s notorious traffic jams on their smart phones – checking emails and watching the news. People with particular views of what goes on in African countries may be surprised at the particular sophistication of this commuter facility. They shouldn’t be. Kenya is the East African hub of telecoms interconnectivity. This is the country that has pioneered the M-Pesa mobile phone money transfer and micro-financing system that is now facilitating so many small businesses.
But enough from me. If you want a flavour of what city life is like for ordinary Kenyans, take a look at these two short films.
Ailsa’s Travel Theme for more yellow entries besides these that caught my eye:
Figments of DuTchess
The Changing Palette
Photos by Emilio