Transportation Turned Performance Art: Nairobi’s Matatu Crews

NAIROBI, Kenya — Clutching the door frame, Sheriff Safania Maina leans out of the bus as the item hits potholes going 45 miles per hour. He jumps out of the door of the vehicle as the item slows down. He starts to run alongside the item. He yells, encouraging people to board. He spots a prospective passenger as well as bangs on the side of the vehicle to signal the driver to stop. He helps a woman with her bag get on. He hops back in.

“This kind of can be my office,” he yells, as “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar blares out of bus’s 28 speakers.

Mr. Maina can be one of many young people in Nairobi who work on a matatu, the privately owned buses in which have transported at least 60 percent of Nairobi’s population since the early ’60s. The word matatu comes through the Kikuyu word for “three,” referring to the three ten-cent coins used to pay for a ride to the city when matatus first commenced operating. within the mid-to late 1990s, matatu drivers became known in Nairobi for their infamously dangerous driving habits, as well as the industry was linked with violent criminal gangs like Mungiki, who infiltrated matatu routes as well as extorted “protection” money through matatu crews.

“Be clean, dress smartly, be polite,” said Brian Ouma, Woodini’s driver, of the unofficial rules on his matatu. “Before, the job was associated with riffraff, yet we want to change in which perception. Customers come for the experience.”

In Nairobi’s Central Business District, matatus line up next to leafy palm trees as well as fried chicken as well as chip shops in anticipation of customers, featuring a variety of themes.

A Scooby Doo-themed matatu can be painted neon pink as well as features a fluffy Scooby Doo doll hanging on the dashboard. Down the road, on the Breaking Bad, images of the characters Walter White as well as Jesse Pinkman as well as a gold periodic table elements outfit the matatu. On Giovanni, a Spartan helmet sits above the number 300 spray painted across the windows as a nod to the film. There can be even an Iggy Azalea-themed one.

Anna Mugure, one of the only female matatu drivers, steers Revolt, a bus covered in graffiti of revolutionary leaders like Malcolm X as well as Che Guevara. She said she has had to be more aggressive on the road — as well as with the matatu community.

“I can match any man on the road driving. I have to show them I’m not easy. I have to be tough,” she said, skillfully cutting off another driver before pulling onto the side of the highway to drop off a passenger.

Even though she has been within the industry for 21 years, first as a conductor as well as at This kind of point a driver, she said male drivers ignore as well as often harass her on the road. The appreciation through some of her female passengers keeps her motivated. “People are surprised to see me within the driver’s seat,” she said. “yet I fell in love with matatu culture.”

“My friends say I treat the item like the item’s my baby,” says Roy Johnson Mungai, the owner as well as designer of Woodini, a red as well as gray matatu in which displays the faces of some of hip-hop’s greatest names: Tupac, Dr. Dre as well as Snoop Dogg. “I add tiny details like fuzzy side mirrors, as well as people notice.” He estimated in which he has spent 7.5 million Kenyan shillings, or about $75,000, on to outfit the vehicle.

the item pays to hold the most elaborate matatu in town: The better-designed vehicles can charge up to three times as much as plain ones.

Also part of the job are the matatu conductors’ death-defying stunts. They run as well as jump onto moving matatus, or hang off the edge of the door frame, their feet nearly grazing the ground. Mr. Maina makes sure to fit in a few stunts during each 10-hour shift just to stay awake. One trick involves kicking up his legs into a backbend on the side of the matatu.