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.
In 2004, the government attempted to clean up the industry as well as instated the Michuki rules, which require matatus to have speed regulators, proper seatbelts as well as a uniformed crew. yet these rules were rarely enforced because of police corruption on the streets, according to John Gichigi, the branch executive officer at Matatu Owners Association. In 2010, in efforts to eliminate gangs through the industry, matatu owners became members of a SACCO or a Savings as well as Credit Cooperation Organization. There are multiple privately owned SACCO’s in Kenya. They are cooperatives which make the item easier to register as well as manage the matatus as well as their routes.
Today, a growing number of young people in Nairobi have been trying to rebrand matatu culture, once seen as dangerous as well as reckless, through polite manners, art as well as social media.
Mr. Maina has more than 4,500 followers on Instagram, as well as said in which posting regularly helps maintain his brand. In a post through January, he stands in front of Woodini, the matatu on which he works, staring defiantly into the camera as passengers look on.
“Most of my clients, I got them through social media,” he says. “They see my posts as well as they want to come ride with me.” There are a lot of matatus on each route, so passengers choose to ride the matatus considered the coolest on their route.
“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.
Dressing fashionably can be just another aspect of what some consider a show-off culture, which commenced within the 1990s as well as early 2000s, with what the author Kenda Mutongi calls “Generation Matatu.” In her book, “Matatu: A History of well-liked Transportation in Nairobi,” she describes a generation of young, educated men as well as women who grew up as Kenya’s neoliberal economic policies developed, as well as who were disenchanted with government work as well as unable to find employment various other than within the growing matatu industry. “Social or economic class seemed to be less important than knowing the latest hip-hop hits, or wearing the right kinds of clothes,” Ms. Mutongi wrote.
“I have a theme today; the item’s all Gucci,” Mr. Ouma said. “I got the hat as well as scarf through a shop here in town yet a friend within the U.S. sent me these shoes.”
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.
“I believe in hard work, I never relax, as well as I dress to kill,” he said. “as well as my shoes as well as shirt coloring always match.”
Dennis Muraguri, 37, a multimedia artist in Nairobi, recalled a matatu stop outside his window growing up in Naivasha, a town west of Nairobi. “through when I was a kid, I was fascinated with the whole theater of the item,” he said. The artist at This kind of point creates vivid woodblock prints of matatus through scenes he photographs around Nairobi, as well as sells his artwork in Kenya as well as abroad. In his studio, his prints hang to dry on clotheslines, stickers with images of matatus cover the furniture as well as a photo series of matatu stunts lines the wall — a matatu obsession in which he hopes can be catching on.
“The matatu can be an icon in Nairobi. the item’s not just graffiti on the walls. the item’s not just your vehicle,” he said. “the item’s everybody as well as everything. Even the city around the matatu can be part of the whole affair.”
Brian Wanyama, 27, a self-proclaimed matatu ambassador as well as publicist, “grew up boarding the coolest matatus in Kenya,” including one called Brain Child, where passengers sat on recycled airplane seats. In 2010, Mr. Wanyama helped rebrand the matatu industry’s image by starting “Matwana Matatu Culture,” a social media campaign at Nairobi Design Week in which promotes as well as preserves the industry by sharing photos of designs online, hosting award ceremonies in which celebrate the vehicles as well as their crews as well as championing road safety practices.
“People don’t know in which matatu culture can be a big community,” he said. “Matatus connect everyone.”