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March 19th, 2010  |  Published in Attualità, Blog  |  2 Comments by Katy Fentress

Nairobi is a deceptive city. Its peaceful and lush residential neighbourhoods lull you in a false sense of security. Living in its gated compounds, surrounded by tropical plants and the sounds of exotic animals, you could be forgiven for thinking this is the most peaceful place on earth.

If my friend and host Ariot hadn’t told me, I would have never known that we are just a couple of miles away from Mathare, a Nairobi slum that holds the dubious record of being Africa’s most violent.

Sitting in the leafy suburb of Muthaiga, inhabited mainly by diplomats and UN staff, it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that the population has more than doubled in twenty years, going from just over a million in 1989, to almost three million in 2005.

Since I was here just over a year ago, hundreds of new constructions seem to be popping up all over the place. There may be a recession going on in the rest of the world but it does not seem to have significantly impacted on this city’s real estate development.

This year, freed of the bondage of private transportation, I have gotten the chance to taste what it is like travelling around like the rest of the population: on a Matatu. Nairobi’s main form of public transportation, these privately owned minibuses serve every corner of the capital and beyond.

Trips on matatus can be exhilarating, nauseating or rather uneventful. The rickety vehicles are renowned for careening around corners, their conductors leaning out the door, aggressively cajoling people into joining the already overcrowded vehicle and banging on the side to signal to the driver when a passenger wants to get off.

Recently though, laws have been passed to clamp down on the pure anarchy that had become a way of life for matatus. Police will occasionally stage massive clampdowns on  the overburdened death traps and the conductors don’t try to overstuff the sardine cans quite like they used to.

Nevertheless, matatus are still the most vicious vehicles in the town. No pavement is too high for them to climb up or space too little into which to squeeze, as they aggressively negotiate their way through the city’s notorious rush hour deadlocks.

Each matatu has a clearly defined identity of its own. You can generally tell what kind of matatu is coming your way, by the icons plastered on its sides and, as it gets closer, by the music blaring out of its speakers.

Recently though, on the exterior at least, matatus seem to have conformed to a more standardised look, all white or grey with a yellow stripe running down the side. It is now mainly the bigger buses that colourfully proclaim their alliances.

Matatu music selection is really wide and if one drives by playing something you really hate (Black eyed Peas anyone?), you can always decide to skip it and wait for the next one.

Some matatus will go for a gangsta image, pimping up every available space with pictures of the defunct Tupac (still a huge hit), Fifty Cent, Busta Rhymes and current number one bad boy Hell Rell.

If you fancy a more spiritual ride however, there are of course gospel matatus. I still haven’t managed to figure out though, whether the incidences of pickpocketing are lower here.

It is my understanding that the music videos that play out on the large screen that separates the passengers from the driver, are in a language called Sheng. I’d explain what Sheng is myself, but the author Michela Wrong has done it so well that I thought I’d rely on her words:

“A witty, cheeky, freewheeling Clockwork Orange-style brew of Kiswahili, English and indigenous Kenyan languages, with added dollops of reggae jargon, American slang, French and Spanish, Sheng originated in Nairobi’s Eastland slums in the 1980s. Adopted by matatu touts and rap artists, it radiated along the taxi and bus routes, spilling over into Tanzania and Uganda …so popular has it become, that sending an email or text in Kiswahili or English rather than Sheng is considered disastrously uncool by anyone below the age of twenty”[1]

Michela Wrong is my hero, by the way.  But more of that some other day.

[1] MIcheal Wrong,  Original Trade Paperback, 2009: “It’s our turn to eat” p. 150

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  1. Katy says:

    March 22nd, 2010 at 10:26 (#)

    From the letters page on Kenya’s Daily Nation:

    Save us from this Matatu madness
    Matatus plying some Nairobi routes are subjecting us to brutality and discomfort. Overloading has become the order of the day, even before the “watchful eye” of the traffic policemen. Safety measures of fitting the matatus with seat belts have been neglected. Speeding is rampant and matatu drivers do not bother to observe traffic lights. Loud music dominates and you can hardly communicate. Most of them have big screens, which mostly play dirty music. If you humbly ask the conductor or the driver to reduce the volume, the response is harsh and abusive language. All this is caused by a reluctance of the traffic police to work. Can the traffic commandant involved come in and save us from this matatu madness?

  2. R. says:

    March 25th, 2010 at 09:12 (#)

    great article, it almost reconciled me with Beirut services and “habibi music”.
    My least favorite remain Milan cabs, Ramazzotti is much worst than Tupac or Habibi music and I’d rather die in a car accident in Nairobi or Beirut than engage on a conversation about Berlusconi with a taxi driver form Milan.

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