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A Post About Matatus: The Main Mode of Transport in Kenya
October 3, 2010, 10:58 am
Filed under: Kenya

Dear friends,

There are different types of transportation all over the world. In the US, people mostly drive cars. In Taiwan, EVERYONE takes motor bikes. In India, many people rely on rickshaws for transport.

In Kenya, everyone takes a matatu. And since the entire business involved in taking a matatu is always humorous, I thought it worthwhile to write a post about them.

A Nairobi matatu

Matatus are the main transportation around here in Kenya, and so they are treated like buses. You can find them at a regular station, and they follow a route, make stops, and eventually come to an end. The only difference is, matatus are not regulated like buses are, which means that the people who drive and control these buses are in many instances, absolutely crazy. Matatu drivers are mad men, flying down the road as fast as possible, dodging slower cars and creating lanes just for themselves, usually creating wild traffic jams. Similarly, when a matatu is in a traffic jam themselves, they will try every conceivable way to get out of it: careening down back roads, riding on the sidewalk, or even braving oncoming traffic from the other direction to get to their destination as fast as possible.

Matatus have enough seats for 14 people. I say enough seats, because there are almost ALWAYS more than 14 people crammed into a matatu at once. There have been instances where I’ve been pulled into a matatu and forced to kind of squat in a cramped space and pretend a seat is there when it’s not. They will jam five, or sometimes even six people into a space designed for only three. Some matatus even geniusly construct little planks that they place in between seats so that they can fit as many people in as humanly possible.

If you’re trying to get a matatu from a designated station, picking one is always an adventure. A matatu generally has two employees: the driver, and the conductor who collects the money and tries to get as many people as possible inside the matatu. The driver and conductor work together as ingenious salesmen; the conductor, hollering and waving the number of his bus on a paddle, trying to pull every person walking by into his van. Meanwhile, the driver menacingly revs his engine as if he’s about to fly down the highway, but only moves forward inch by inch: this is a business tactic, because a matatu will never leave until it is full (scheduled leave times for buses are unheard of here), and so in order to compete with all of the other matatus trying to fill up their own vans, the bus driver will move forward, as if to trick people into thinking it is about to take off.

The trick about matatus is to always get in one that is the most full. If you hop into a matatu that is nearly empty, well, at least you’ll have a seat by the window (maybe even in the front next to the driver, where you get the best views)- but you could end up sitting there for 45 minutes waiting for the matatu to fill. It’s always best to jump into the one that is the most crowded, because others will start to follow suite, and soon you’ll be on your way to your destination.

The fare for matatus are also completely different, depending on how far you’re going and what time of the day it is. When matatus are in low demand in the middle of the day, a ride could be as cheap as 10 shillings (not even 15 cents)- but if you’re trying to get a matatu home at 5 PM during rush hour, they’ll charge you three times as much. This is just the rules of the game: but fortunately, matatus usually don’t rip off the mzungus (white people/tourists) and they give a fair price for the most part.

Last but not least, my favorite thing about matatus: each one is uniquely decorated on the inside, with funky miss-spelled words and phrases about God, pictures of strippers, and sometimes even a huge screen TV in the front blasting Kenyan hip hop music videos at top volume (bring earplugs or your own music).

Taking a matatu in Kenya can be a tad dangerous, but it’s always a new adventure every time I step into one. While a lot of Kenyans gripe about the state of matatus in Kenya, I think it’s a really endearing trait about this country that I’ve really come to enjoy.

Until next time,

Brittany


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Sounds like the night bus with the crazy drivers!

Comment by Bonnie Boroian

Reminds me of a similar thing from Egypt, though they weren’t as awesomely decked out as these appear to be!

Comment by Jamie




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