Infectious, pulsating energy has found a permanent home in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. You can feel it in the air, where dust mingles pleasantly with loud music blaring from matatus, the vibrant minibuses and vans that rule the streets of the city. Every day, matatus swerve and weave through traffic as they transport Kenyans to various destinations.
Matatus are more than just a mode of transport – they are a culture. They are famed for their loud music and intriguing artwork that adorns their bodies. In a colourful display of artistic skill, each matatu is emblazoned with diverse graffiti designs depicting anything from popular trends to American hip-hop artists, international pop stars, sports stars, and political icons. Powerful sound systems are fitted in the vehicles, complemented with multiple TV screens to keep passengers entertained. Some matatus even take things up a notch with free onboard Wi-Fi.
All this skillful and creative customisation is done for one reason: to stand out from the clutter and lure more riders. Customers are known to wait for lengthy periods at bus stops to get a ride on the best customised minibuses and vans. With more than 20,000 matatus in the country vying for commuters, the sure way to beat the competition is to pimp your ride and give it a catchy name. One of the hottest and currently trending matatus is known as ‘The Catalyst’. It bagged the coveted ‘Matatu of the Year’ title last year at the Nganya Awards, the biggest event that celebrates the unique urban culture of flashy bus rides. The Catalyst is so famous that American singer Trey Songz rode around town in it during his visit to Kenya last year.
Matatus have long been a part of Kenyan culture. When Nairobi’s formal bus system crumbled in the 1990s, the government failed to revive it. So, upon realising the need for a reliable mass transit system, a resourceful group of Kenyans with entrepreneurial minds came to the rescue. Now, these vans with ornament paint jobs elicit a sense of pride from Kenyans. There’s a multitude of websites and social media pages devoted to the culture and the art that comes with it.
“The term matatu was derived from the three cents fare that passengers used to pay back in the day. Tatu is Swahili word for three, hence the term matatu,” explains Ojey James, writer at matatuworld.com, one of the platforms dedicated to promoting the matatu lifestyle.
“The graffiti art later came to be a sense of style, which evolved from Nairobi Eastlands area and spread wide to various parts of Nairobi, and also countrywide. Other factors such as exterior and interior lighting, multiple TV screens, loud music, free Wi-Fi and loud exhausts were later added with time.”
To an outsider, the matatu culture may seem a strange practice, but for Kenyans, this is how public transport works. Up to seventy percent of Nairobians reportedly use these minibuses because they provide exceptionally cheap and efficient transport. To travel within the city, one would usually pay no more than KES 100 (US$1). Matatus vary in size, the popular being the 32-seater minibuses and the smaller vans that carry 14 passengers. Each vehicle has a conductor whose responsibility is to fill up the matatu faster than the competition by calling out the price and the minibus’s destination.
This kind of public transport is popular in many other African countries, where there are similar vans, but without the art and other elements that make matatus unique. In Lagos, you have bright yellow taxis called danfos; in Addis Ababa, there are ubiquitous blue and white Toyota HiAces known as “blue donkeys”. In Tanzania, people use the famous dala dala minibus taxis.
The matatu system is, of course, not perfect, especially when it comes to road safety. Drivers are notorious for speeding and breaking other rules of the road. In 2003, the government banned matatu art and loud music in an effort to bring order to the roads. The ban was lifted in 2015, once again giving matatus the freedom to express themselves creatively.
Without the art and the creative freedom, job opportunities dwindle in this public transport industry. The sector employs many young people who contribute with various skills, including graffiti artists and sound technicians. “This is a multibillion industry that employs thousands of young people both directly and indirectly. Corporates also use the matatus in commercial adverts and events as a way to attract more young people to their products and services,” shares Ojey.
Despite their flaws, matatus are an indelible part of Kenyan urban culture. They give Nairobi a unique identity and remain one of the busy city’s most ubiquitous feature. As Ojey puts it, “they brighten the city.”