Matatus

P1010064Nairobi If there’s public transportation in Nairobi, no one knows about it.  There are matatus though by the hundreds.  These are private mini-vans, jitney buses, and even larger buses that hog the roads and rule the roost.  They seem to be semi-regulated, which means that in certain areas in downtown Nairobi a driver will hide his number on the dashboard.  Otherwise it’s pretty much anarchy, but in a way that everyone seems to understand and accept in exchange for the low prices, which also very from trip to trip and route to route, just as often the routes varied based purely on the whim of the driver and his hardworking tout, who also serves as money collector, assistant laborer for the 100 pound sacks pulled on board, and passenger wrangler from the streets of the city.

Normally, foreigners are pushed into hiring a car for the day, which sometimes makes sense if you are going a million places and are off the matatu routes, but even at $20 to $25 per day is ridiculous compared to a 100 Kenya Shillings (ks) charge from Kenyattta Market to Korogocho for example, which is about $1.25 USD.  So as a grassroots operation of poor people from around the world, if we could figure out the matatus, we were going for it, so that’s the way we rolled this trip in Nairobi, and I have to say, I loved them.

As transportation, they are just that.  A seat by the window allows you to breathe even more of the fumes of the road, but gives you a breeze.  A bench seat is a bench seat, so let’s not get hung up on comfort

I got a kick out of the cultural footnotes the matatus would provide.  Some would have bible sayings on the back, one had a picture of Osama bin Ladin.  Many were dedicated to elaborate paintings of rap stars from around the world complete with an inside sound system at full blast playing the tunes of the stars.  Beyonce, Ice Cube, 50 cent, all had their matatus in vivid colors.  British soccer clubs and American football teams were well represented.  Some would simply have a collection of disconnected slogans painted all over.  There is a deep rebellious and radical streak in the matatu culture which I found, frankly, very hopeful for the future for organizing.

My other favor world bus transportation has been the collectivos of Buenos Aires which all began as private outfits and now have been municipalized to run  various and sundry neighborhood routes.  They were identified by their colors as well and their numbers of course, but are strictly staid affairs when compared to the matatus.

Sometimes on our way to Korogocho, the matatu would simply stop a mile or so from the end of the route, preferring to head back.  There was no protest.  It was the way of things.  One day, the matatu decided to veer off in another direction closer to the Mathare slum, so we had to take a third matatu to make it the few more kilometers to our Korogocho destination.  No harm, no foul.  The new matatu driver didn’t charge us.  The only collections are on the full ride customers.  There may be whim involved, but the wheel of justice is still rolling.

I wouldn’t try this at home so to speak or without being able to go with our organizers or get them to point the way her and there to get me where needed, but it was a wonderful experience.

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