Kenya’s Resilient Matatu Minibuses Gain Status As Public Transport Bans Loom

By Dana Sanchez Published: November 2, 2016, 1:46 pm

Kenya’s souped-up matatu minibuses — some with names, flashing lights and onboard entertainment to attract customers — are often blamed for Nairobi’s snarled traffic, and Kenyan regulators have tried repeatedly to ban them.

These efforts seem to elevate the status of matatus, whose owners try to outdo each other with graffiti-style artwork, custom designs, and loud music.

Matatus generate jobs for 160,000 workers, many of whom have few other employment opportunities, according to a 2012 interview posted on the Magnum Foundation, website.

For matatu owners, the business can be very profitable but also rough and risky. Mostly based on cash, the risk of theft is high, according to a report in The Founder.

Matatu owners can earn $60-$100 US a day after paying their crew and fueling up for the next day, depending on capacity. Matatu drivers and touts (sales people) earn about $10 to $15 US a day.

Done mostly by hand, building and customizing a matatu can cost $20,000, CNN reported. Each matatu is built from scratch, usually from the stripped chassis of a new truck. Fabricators weld the skeletons and attach the panels. Once the blank canvas is ready, matatu artists decorate them with graffiti, hand-painted portraits and bold designs.

About 10 years ago, the government banned matatu art and loud music. The ban was lifted in 2015, but matatu fans worry new bans will come.

In December 2013, the Ministry of Transport confirmed plans to phase out 14-seater matatus, The Star reported, prompting threats of a showdown between the government and public transport operators.

The ban was to take effect from Jan. 1 2014, contradicting an earlier directive by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who said the 14-seater matatus should not be phased out as earlier planned.

Brian Wanyama isn’t taking any chances. He founded Matwana Matatu Culture to document what he calls “museums on wheels” though his blog and social media, according to CNN.

Nairobi traffic is among the worst in Africa, Citizen Digital reported. The city, population 3.915 million, has tried for years  without success to solve the gridlock in the central business district.

Matatus invade pavements meant for pedestrians, according to the report. Efforts to ban them haven’t worked.

Matatu taxis represent urban youth culture in Nairobi, Wanyama said. “It’s something that’s in our blood. No one can say they haven’t boarded a matatu.”

In the face of government bans and alternative forms of public transport, Wanyama is on a one-man quest to document Nairobi’s matatus before they’re forced to disappear.

“When you see the matatus and the art, you really understand Nairobi, because Nairobi is a city that is run by the youth,” Wanyama said.

Some matatus are decorated with designs of religious figures, athletes, political icons, hip-hop artists, and international stars, Face2Face Africa reported. They blast homegrown music promoting up-and-coming Kenyan artists.

Wanyama shares photos of matatu art in Nairobi with his fans. He says his non-profit project is safeguarding matatu culture for future generations.

“My goal is to preserve this industry. Without it we wouldn’t have a way of expressing ourselves,” he said.

Not everyone sees it that way.

In a column in The Nairobian, Fred Gori didn’t have much nice to say about matatus. Matatu owners and operators have “untouchable” status, and some of the minibuses are named after the Devil, Gori said:

“Thug Life”, “Schizophrenia”, “I am coming home”, “Lucifer”, “Devil with us” and other matatus (have) names inspired direct from Lucifer’s desk.

Seat belts are all but gone, passengers are harassed daily by matatu gangs and the culture of silence among Kenyans has only emboldened the gangs and increased their numbers. If there is one word that aptly describes what is going on in the matatu industry, it is impunity. These people are a government unto themselves.

These are matatus which are apparently owned by well-connected individuals, their relatives or acolytes. Police officers who dare to hold these “special matatus” to account risk being transferred to the border of Kenya and Somalia to “manage traffic” there.

 

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