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By Frank Mutulu
NAIROBI, Kenya – For millions of Africans across the continent earning little to average income, minibuses are the primary means of conveyance. In Kenya and Uganda they are called matatus; in Tanzania, dala-dalas; in Nigeria, danfos.
In Kenya, privately-owned matatus are the backbone of the transportation system in the cities. They log hundreds of miles a day as they provide service to millions. In the early 1970s matatus were few and far between. They soon became ubiquitous as their popularity soared to form a multi-million dollar industry.
Matatus, particularly those in the East African state’s capital of Nairobi, have become more than a means of conveyance. They are a way of life.
The popular 14-seater and larger 25 to 33-seater matatus are decorated to attract the urban youth and their fares. Many have brightly colored paintwork and graffiti, flamboyant interior decor, blaring music and accessories such small TV screens on the back of headrests.
The average one-way fare in most matatus traveling Nairobi routes is KES 70 ($0.8).
“At night the numerous, multicolored lights, in and outside the matatus, are switched on. Apart from the fact that they do not sell alcohol in there, you would easily mistake them for mobile clubs. I’ve boarded a matatu once that had a disco ball in it,” Andrew Kibuswa, 28, told The Atlantic Post.
In June this year, Safaricom, Kenya’s telecommunications giant, introduced free wi-fi in 200 matatus in partnership with the Matatu Association of Kenya to improve travel experience. Many Nairobi residents own smart phones and are constantly on the internet.
The ‘charming’ matatus are known for swerving in and out of their designated lanes and driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid traffic. The drivers seemingly have special powers of locating potential fares in a sea of people. They honk and zoom past traffic as their vehicles’ muffled exhausts release dark plumes of smoke.
“I love my job! Some people say it is degrading to ‘hang’ on mats [matatus]…I make approximately KES 2,000 ($23) per day. That’s probably more than what the people we transport on a daily basis make in the regular places of work,” Mike “Sheeri” Muchiri, 23, told The Atlantic Post, as a Bob Marley tune blared from the speakers.
“I don’t plan on doing this [touting] forever. Inhaling all these fumes daily is definitely unhealthy. I’m saving up to start a business in a year or so.”
The matatu experience is known to tourists as well.
“Most exhilarating was being squeezed onto matatus in Nairobi to reach Mother Roach’s or other worthy destinations. I counted somewhere up above 15 persons tight in one of these rolling transports. And the money collectors [touts] never seemed to miss collecting fares and waving down the driver to cram another soul in,” said Glenn Dover.
“Best of all was hanging partly out of the vehicle or jumping up onto a slowed but never stopped matatu. Great memories!”
While many Kenyan citizens use matatus for daily commute, most fear them. Although they usually follow definite routes, matatus do not have a schedule. Drivers are prompted to maneuver traffic and hit highways at breakneck speeds allowing them to ply their route many times in a day to make more money.
“When I was younger, I used to enjoy the matatu rides and music. I considered them as Africa’s version of roller coasters. I used to wait for a specific matatu at the stage for hours since I liked the music, graffiti and the fact that the driver would get us from downtown to my home, about 7 miles away, in 10 or so minutes,” said Maina Kamau, 33, in an interview with The Atlantic Post.
“I now have a family; I see matatus for what they are. With the reckless driving it is no surprise that they are a leading cause of road accidents in the country. I put up some savings and bought a car which spares me the trouble of holding my breath every day in the commute,” Kamau said.
Kenya has the highest fatality rates in the entire sub-Saharan region. In the seven months leading to August this year, over 2,000 fatalities have been reported.
According to Kenya’s Ministry of Transport statistics, 85 percent of road deaths result from human error including speeding.
Upon assuming office in 2003, the late John Michuki who served as Kenya’s transport minister had in less than one year brought some sanity to the public transport sector. The rules he implemented to streamline the matatu industry became known as the Michuki Rules. They introduced seat belts and made it mandatory to strap in. Speed meters would be installed in all matatus, capping their speeds at 50 miles per hour, and color was standardized for all matatus.
Frank Mutulu is The Atlantic Post’s Kenya correspondent, based in Nairobi.