You can’t think of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, without thinking of Matatus—colorful, privately-owned buses that about 70 percent of Nairobi citizens rely on to get around, as their speakers blast music so loud you can feel it in your stomach.
Matatu, which translates to “three” in Kikuyu, is a reference to the three ten-cent coin fare paid when the buses were first introduced after the end of colonial rule in Kenya. Driven by a lack of reliable transportation for commuters, matatus are a legacy of private cars that used alternate routes in the spread out city when public buses would not, in return for that small fare.
You find similar stories all over the world, even in dollar vans in New York City. But matatus are different. You can tell the moment you see them. Or hear them.
Today they are also popular under manyanga, which translates to “horns.” Manyangas have bigger bodies and more seats (your standard matatu is only 14 seats), flat screen TVs, WiFi, and even more speakers.
Bus owner Edward Nyachanchu of the Luminous company, told Jalopnik that he invested about 7 million Kenyan shilling on his matatu manyanga named Kixx, which is equal to about $69,000 U.S dollars, as they make more money than the standard body ones. “It takes three years to get your money back,” he explained. “People started making manyanga because people like the manyangas. When they like the manyanga they make a lot of money.”
These quotes come from video shot by journalist Ruud Elmendorp. Elmendorp produced this short feature on matatus, which we edited together into the video you see at the top, compiling a series of chats and interviews with those who work in the matatu industry.
According to Ricky Choda, owner of Choda Coach and Buses, the body is built from scratch by bodybuilders from a plain chassis imported by dealers like Isuzu, Mitsubishi, and Scania, among others. From there, designers come up with elaborate graphics to cater to their clients needs. “Mostly the owner will come with a name for a matatu,” says matatu designer Mike Obango. “I’ll go and do my research using the internet and get their history, how they were manufactured. Then come up with a theme.”
The more eye catching and elaborate the theme is, the better it is against the competition and for business. Whether it’s a reimagining of Marilyn Monroe as a gunslinger, hip hop icons Method Man and Redman, or even a Canadian hockey star, chances are there’s a matatu out there designed to match the spray-painted aesthetic brand of your choosing.
Matatus play a huge part in Nairobi identity, to the point where, without them, the city would essentially come to a stop since not a lot of people can afford their own vehicles. But as the New York Times reported last year, matatus also have a history of being seen as reckless with ties to criminal activity. Gangs would infiltrate bus operations, the paper explained, and also extort them for protection money. The government has run crackdowns against these gangs, but it seems that matatu operators themselves may have been more effective, as the Times notes:
In 2004, the government attempted to clean up the industry and instated the Michuki rules, which require matatus to have speed regulators, proper seatbelts and a uniformed crew. But 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 from the industry, matatu owners became members of a SACCO or a Savings and Credit Cooperation Organization. There are multiple privately owned SACCO’s in Kenya. They are cooperatives which make it easier to register and manage the matatus and their routes.
Where the government still intervenes is in trying to clean up the buses themselves, as Nyachanchu explained to Jalopnik. “The government sometimes says that your decoration is too much. You are told to remove this and that. That’s the government.”
“We follow the law. So it’s basically on us to see how far we can modify and it also depends on the client. What he’s ready to give. How much he’s willing to give for what he wants.” says Choda.
But despite the challenges, people continue to use the matatus. Especially young people who are reclaiming matatu culture as their own. “We have a large number of youths. So the number that tend to use these matatus are the youths which is very high,” said Collins Otieno Owino, a sound technician dedicated to manyangas.
It’s uncertain what the future holds for the idiosyncratic matatus. Opinion even in Kenya goes back and forth over whether these buses are a strong symbol of local work or of dangerous driving and corruption. That and the government is encroaching on business. In 2008, the government announced national strategies that push for infrastructure and economic development, including planned improvements to mass transit by 2030 to compete in a more global economy.
But what’s certain is that Matatus are not just a method of transportation, and matatu culture continues to go strong thanks in large part to the young people in Nairobi and the use of social media, of which Obango has high hopes: “My dream in the matatu industry. I want to see it go more out there. If I go to the neighboring countries like Tanzania, I can do one. Maybe go to Europe. Maybe they make the culture known world wide. That’s my dream.”