Getting Around: A Lesson in Matatus

Life is busy! I have mastered the art of a bucket shower, Swahili language classes are in full swing at four days per week as well as a class at Carlile College, two online classes through Azusa Pacific University, and a microfinance internship to start next week. That doesn’t include spending time with my friends and host family, studying, trying out new churches, and exploring Nairobi. Therefore, much of my time is spent transporting myself from one place to another via the world’s most exciting form of transportation: the matatu.

Matatus are privately-owned 15-passenger vans and Nairobi’s most widely used mode of transport. Many of them are moving works of art, adorned with decals and themed graphics ranging from political figures to musical artists to Biblical references. Some have names painted across them like “Black Reign” or “God’s Chosen One” or “Mystikal.”  My host mom will pass up several matatus before selecting the quietest one, but I prefer those with bass thumping and music blaring – usually Kenyan hip-hop, dancehall, gospel or reggae. A few matatus are even equipped with television screens that entertain passengers with music videos during their commutes to and from work. (Abby and I like to think that the louder the music is, the faster we’ll get to our destination, and generally it has proven to be true).

At each stop, matatus cram into a tiny space and a conductor hangs out the door yelling the route and price at the top of his lungs (which at first sounded like incoherent rhythmic shouting). The only way to know which route goes where is to ask a local, or figure it out by trial and error. Bodies cram into every seat and the conductor collects the fare along the way, tapping each person on the shoulder to pay up. The price of a ride varies depending on the time of day and route, but generally costs between 10 and 40 Kenyan Schillings (approximately 12 to 60 U.S. cents). Experiencing Nairobi traffic in a matatu is half the fun. Traffic jams are inevitable at most times of the day, but matatu drivers are experts at flying over medians and squeezing through impossibly small spaces, occasionally side-swiping a car, though stopping only if a necessary part of the vehicle has fallen off.

Matatus are also notorious for being the most likely place to get pick-pocketed. My local friends have taught me some of the most common tricks of matatu thieves. For example, someone may cover part of your bag with a newspaper that they are “reading,” while pick-pocketing or even cutting your bag open with a knife to steal its contents. Or the rider next to you may “accidently” drop coins on the floor by your feet so that when you kindly bend down to pick them up your bag will be snatched. But as unsettling as it may sound to some, matatu rides are just one of the many things that keep life interesting in Nairobi – and they will get you just about anywhere you need to go!


6 thoughts on “Getting Around: A Lesson in Matatus

  1. A whole other world, Allissa, and YOU get to explore it! Fascinating to say the least. And, we get to have an inside peek. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Aw I miss the always-nerve-wrecking rides on the matatus! I especially enjoyed the matatu hub downtown that was so crazy I was sure that this is where I was going to face my maker – have you found this place yet?

  3. I can hear your laughter in the matatu. Laughing at the insanity of the driving, exhaust, and thinking this is really happening… lol carpe diem. enjoy!

  4. Pingback: Robbery Attempt | Kenya Feel It?

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