The yellow streaks of the morning sun twitters in the cool morning breezes, a new day has just been born in the magic Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Busy men and women, young gentlemen and ladies, school boys and girls clad in glamorous attires; swanky suits, miniskirts, name it … they are swarming like bees from every city estate; South B, Buru Buru, Kayole, Githurai, Umoja 1, Umoja 2, …. the list goes on but all share something in common; they are destined to the hub of the city and to make it there, have to use a daily friend -“ the matatu”.
‘Matatu’, a name that stands for the public travel car which almost every Nairobi resident will use in some time of the day to get to his place of need; to work, to school, to hospital…and mention the word in any bus stage, even a year old baby turns his angelic eyes in joy; he knows though the father may not be an owner of a family car, at least there is this one car for all families, and it’s the matatu!
But what does the name ‘ matatu’ mean? ‘tatu’ is a Kiswahili word, the common language in East Africa, that means ‘three’. But what does ‘three’ has to do with an innocent machine on the road…many years ago (where ‘many’ refers to a large number; perhaps when Henry Ford was discovering cars) these vehicles used to ferry passengers at a cost of only three cents as fare (I assume three cents was equivalent to the present quarter a dollar)…anyway that is just a beginning of the very long and sweet ‘matatu theory’ …
A matatu in Nairobi properly describes a 14-seater Nissan Hommy Car, or Toyota Shark models normally used in several routes within the city, and more so, for journeys to upcountry…. or else the name refers to 25-seater mini-buses mostly Isuzu models, which are regarded a higher class because of their spacious cabins and special adornments, besides being the fashionable public car for the middle aged or the dot com age (this refers to the age that does almost everything with the computers; reading, working ..…) and the sister name for 25-seater matatus is ‘manyanga’; a Nairobi slang for ‘a very beautiful girl’, but surely speaking, 25-seater matatus must be feminine, why? From the way their drivers behave, to the way the machines are designed, these engines must be girls! They are so charming such that if your daughter or son drives in, he or she must get late to where she or he was going! reason for this? it remains a mystery!
What’s inside the Nairobi matatu especially the 25-seater that makes so much fuss to the city-man? Be patient to witness the prophesied highway aero-bus. At the driver’s cockpit is an engineered cabin full of steering paraphernalia. To swerve the whole engine in a 360 degrees turn, just requires a tip of you fingernail on the steering wheel; the wheel is as swift as a lightning. What about the clutch pedals and the accelerators? So flexible, that a soft stepping on the pedals by a newborn baby will leave the engine roar like Boeing 747 family, but all the above mechanisms are just for one reason; to enable the matatu driver cruise in the Nairobi’s ‘Sun City’ avenues at terrific speeds which leave the older-aged pedestrians bit their forefingers to swear, “I will never ever travel in a 25-seater”
Get to the city of Nairobi at anytime, especially rush hours….that is early mornings and evenings when everyone is making hurried scuttles either to get to town, or to get home and what a scene in this hour… a flowery city of moving machines adorned in: flashy lights attached inside and outside the cabin, magnetic colored stickers on the windscreens, windows, seats, on the ceiling and all these have been designed in sophisticated computer graphics; thanks to design companies like Catskill Auto-Designers who transform a one piece of plain metal from the factory to adorable moving cabins ready to break people’s hearts….
Before any matatu is flagged off to start business within the town, it has to pass through the test of quality. Why this? Matatu industry is a very busy sector that brings substantial yields to the investors, and therefore, the very stiff competition. If the car is just a milk-white machine, plain as it was imported from United Arab Emirates, there is a likelihood the driver and his conductor will fetch very little, so the owners have to use the most stylish ways to attract the choosy Nairobians who are very selective on products especially the youth age and to understand how serious it is, a primary school pupil would rather arrive at school two hours late, or arrive home when people are going to bed, than use a matatu that doesn’t match his peers’ lifestyle.
Then the most important, the identification codes for matatus…the worst moment in Nairobi would, you don’t know the route number of the matatu that plies where you want to go! Different places in Nairobi have specific matatus assigned to the route and the cars do not change routes, they aren’t even allowed to do so. Just for example; Car. No 33 ‘A’ serves area around Jommo Kenyatta International Airport in the Eastern side of Nairobi…now the nasty moment would be, there is another No 33’ B’ that serves the Western Side at Kenyatta National Hospital. If you aren’t sure which No. 33…either A or B, and don’t take time to ask for assistance, you are likely to find yourself in the opposite direction of where you were meant to be.
The naming system! Creative designers in the city must be very thoughtful, they use very unexpected titles branded on the side of the cabin, or on the rear window. You would hear a twelve-year-old asking a fellow desk mate in a science class whether ‘Monica Lewinsky’ passed through their estate the previous night. Of course a person might mistake the little blameless angel incase he is not aware that “Monica” is the newest matatu model in the route. An astonished mother would also question her teenage daughter why she was late from school, and the daughter defends herself that she was waiting for “ Michael Jordan”, if the mother doesn’t know “Michael” is another matatu that has introduced snacks and coffee to its customers as they travel, then she will definitely start issues with the daughter.
The amazing blaring horn system in these cars would better not be left out! Pianos, or violins may or may not be installed in the matatu but when these self-proclaimed ‘road pilots’ do their full will to play on the sounds to alert their customers, the estates and city roads turn into one open hall of jazz tunes, which of course may not be admissible to most road users. Anyway all these (even noises) lay a scoring card for commuters in deciding which matatu to use or not use, especially the youth who will offer to pay twice as much for these extra attributes. Not forgetting the majestic music system…. the music source is a one-inch size woofer, but the small machine has an amplified sound system to leave these road transport engines as mobile discotheques where the style vary from one matatu to the other; if the driver was Bob Marley’s personal friend, the expected tunes are of course reggae classics, but if the driver is a 50-cent’s age-mate, its guessable what to expect. What funnier is, the matatu owners may spend enough money on these adornments, amount which would be ready to acquire another new engine…. anyway what they practice is one very important element of marketing, and that is carving a market niche.
But above all these, matatu is not a friend to all, ask any personal car driver in Nairobi what he fears most in the road, you may make an intelligent guess, he fears hijacking, that is partially right but what puts his nerves to test….is the scene of an emerging matatu either from behind or at the front. This is enough to make him retire prematurely from driving; the way the engines are driven make your innocent personal car ‘brake and dance’ like Schumacher’s formula one rally car, they will force you to reduce your acceleration down from 180 kilometers per hour to zero in less than a second, they change lanes when they want…but the good thing about it, if you get a ‘pass’ certificate after the ‘matatus menace’ races, you are eligible to drive anywhere in the world and may even end up being the driver of the century…….
Year 2004 saw a dramatic upheaval in this sector especially after the government-changed hands. There before, matatu industry was a one confused system, which had a very disorganized management. Commuters were harassed in broad daylight, cartels had emerged to control the routes where they charged exorbitant rates on the owners, government lost innumerable amount of income to the evasive taxpayers and the worst of it, accidents maimed lives everyday and this saw the emergence of what many people referred to as ‘castration of the matatu regime’. Why the word?
Castration is a term that is normally applied in the animal kingdom to emphasize an act done on animals to reduce exaggerated ‘heat’. Matatus in Nairobi were purely a headache, they had risen up to uncontrollable levels of misdemeanor…and to witness why castration was a matter of urgency…the scene is in one of these matatus, and the time is 4.30 pm, a certain day in year 2003 sometime before the changes were effected, you are just an innocent passenger perhaps for one best reason, you don’t own a personal car! Now you are seated comfortably on the spongy seats but above all, what you are missing most is, being at your house fastest way possible. But before you get there, here a price to pay for not owning an own car! The driver who looks half- sober touches a button on the remote-controlled mini-hi-fi, and the matatu cabin turns into one thunderstorm ….a jukebox…Tower of Babel would be the best term to use. That’s of course not music, because music is an organized sound (as the music lesson keeps repeating)…you beckon the driver to minimize the noise, but a twelve year old standing at the door (he is the conductor) hanging precariously and wearing a shade of black goggles points to you at a hand written sticker pinned on a gigantic speaker at the wall, it reads “If it’s too loud for you, then you are too old to be here”…this is a self-understood sentence, and it will silence you the rest of your journey, from there you have better change your manner of operations, even using your mobile phone; you have to communicate in ‘short message text’ mode only to your friends in the outside since you can’t hear anything from a caller and to make it worse, even to a friend seated next have to speak in texts since listening to each other is a struggle too.
Just before the above sweet words on the sticker sink on your good mind, here is another 21st century innovation, the DVD (Short for Digital Video Decoder)…. Remember it’s the year 2003, when the gadget is very new in the Kenyan markets; Sony World must have given the Nairobi matatus a contract to test their new product. The 14-inch screen is mounted on the front for everyone’s best view and now the machine is switched on, and next seated to you is your lovely daughter (of course you are the loving father). Just to get a taste of this electronic discovery, here is the dose! The screen is in full mode showing truly complete nude girls dancing to the tune ‘lets get dirty’. You have never seen such a scene, your daughter who has ever been a moral icon, has never seen such and this must not be the pretty time to start a topic on this…and what next, you have to start pretending to be admiring at the rainy weather outside and by the time you get to your house, it’s a moment of immersing yourself in deep prayers asking God to descend a miracle so that you can at least own a car soonest possible!
That wasn’t all; matatus could comfortably speed at 200 kilometers per hour; and inside were passengers packed like sardines in a can leaving no ventilation in the whole cabin. The now 14-seater used to carry 25 passengers. Guess how? The vehicle had seats in four rows, and the arrogant conductors would command passengers to stay in two’s on one seat, it was then you and your colleague to interpret what that meant, anyway there was no choice but to do exactly that. The formula was, you sit on the laps of your colleague…now the problem would be, similarly to the DVD story, a twenty year old daughter is traveling with her respected father, and she is forced to rest on her father’s lap, now imagine when in these positions, the car is flying at the scaring speed and unfortunately, an accident happens. This resulted to grisly scenes; the car would be reduced to a fresh iron ore, and the passengers would be piled in one stack of mashed meat!
The above illustrations were once real in the Nairobi matatus, and this called for new and strict measures on the industry for it was truly messy! Though the commuters underwent an intensive suffering due to a strike that lasted nearly months, it saw a marvelous streamlining of the sector. The then 25-passengers ‘holder’ became a 14-seater, and the 45-holder became a 25-seater. Besides that, all public service cars had to bear a yellow line henceforth to distinguish them from other cars, this was meant for easier identification of public cars to reduce cases of hijacking where passengers would get in any car and end up at the hands of muggers. Now the real castration was, all matatu cars had to be fitted in speed governors, this reduced the acceleration level from daring three digits to an average 80 kilometers per hour, and to date…all of the matatus drive at comfortable speeds. Though the speedometers still remain calibrated up to 240kilometers per hour, these once ‘favorite-but-fatal-speeds’ are now unreachable and are today the best dreams ever to ‘once-naughty’ matatu drivers!
Safety belts! Kenyans used to think as it goes birds is to feathers…safety belt was to aeroplanes. But this no more, even the grandfathers and mothers in the upcountry now strap on safety belts whenever they travel in the matatus, though it was quite an uphill task training the folks on how to fit in these gadget. In the first days of training, many did not remember belts are unfastened at end of their journeys, and had bitter struggles with these unwelcome straps but today a matatu seat is never complete without the belt, and a penalty too if one is caught by a traffic policeman without a belt on, a fine of five hundred Kenya shillings and twice amount on the driver.
All above meant all matatu’s had to go back to the mechanical board, and undergo rigorous restructuring; new upholstery, new repainting and this exercise phased out all un-roadworthy matatus which had guised as ‘friendly’ but used to be the ‘death traps’…in addition to that, the drivers and conductors had to obtain certificates of good conduct from the Criminal Investigation Department, this was to track down any who may have ever escaped a misconduct, or who might be in the most-wanted list by the department. The matatu drivers had to start wearing blue colored uniform, while conductor’s worn red for identification and to crown it all, matatus and buses owners had to apply afresh for new licensing, but before that, they had to undergo a thorough inspection to certify all regulations had been duly satisfied.
That is the transformation of the now Nairobi matatu, the prime mode of travel to millions of Nairobi residents. It’s a car that has undergone evolution from that once moving metal piece, to the present trendy car which every visitor to Nairobi will admire; the drivers have changed a lot, the conductors too…and the society too…. which has kept pace with the dynamic world where people are becoming enlightened day by day, embracing the most efficient, effective and of course, most comfortable way of transport, and the Nairobi matatu has not been left out, true of course!