Kenya’s matatus: rebels on the road
Inside a dusty garage walled with corrugated sheets in the populous Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh a collection of 14-seater vans, and 33-seater minibuses stand in various states of transformation. Before a tour of duty in Nairobi’s 30,000-strong public transport system, these vehicles, popularly known as matatus, will shed their bland factory skins for an ostentatious armour.
The specialised skill of customising them happens in only a handful of bodyshops across the city, including that of pioneering matatu artist Mohammed ‘Moha Grafix’ Kartar. The bald and bearded 38-year-old is a whizz with an air-spray gun. With the steady hand of a 16-year veteran, Moha can paint matatus the entire colour spectrum, or a sleek black coat upon which images of pop culture figures are reproduced in graffiti and stickers. Cue the series of portraits of Beyoncé, Vin Diesel, footballer Wayne Rooney and Barack Obama.
Further upgraded, MTV Pimp My Ride-style, with state-of-the-art sound systems, plush seats, a multitude of TV screens and melodic horn systems, the matatus emerge as visually-stunning moving discos.
‘Matatu’ is a blanket term for the country’s public service vehicles (PSV), ranging from 11- to 50-seater vans, minibuses and buses. But what keeps Kenyan PSVs worlds apart from Egypt’s otobüs, South Africa’s kombis and Nigeria’s danfos is the customised matatus. These bold, original vehicles are an integral part of local culture, and money makers for an industry that records a total annual turnover – all types of PSVs included– of KSh73bn ($702m). This makes the matatu industry one of the largest indigenous economic enterprises in Kenya.
“It is one of Kenya’s attractions. When foreigners come here they always ask about the matatus. It’s Kenya’s trademark,” says Moha, who tags every vehicle he works on. Averaging five vehicles in a slow month, Moha’s logo can be found on matatus plying nearly every route in Nairobi as well as various towns.
Phat sounds garanteed as the artis adds a finishing touch
The matatu art reflects these vehicles’ anarchic reputation. In the early 1980s while operating in the ‘Nyayo’ era – the regime of Daniel arap Moi, which leant toward sanctioning, strict regulation and surveillance – matatus served as free spaceswhere thepublic converged, and their drivers were known as rule-breakers. As Professor Kenda Mutongi observed in her essay, ‘Thugs or Entrepreneurs? Perceptions of matatu operators in Nairobi, 1970 to the present’, this was where gossip was exchanged, fashions were displayed, politics were disputed, and crimes were perpetrated. The iconography on the matatus pushed this idea of rebellion. Matatu artists adopted symbolism from hip-hop culture that glorified wealth and had no regard for the law. Matatu artists viewed their bad-boy antics as asymbolic coup.
In Nairobi’s Matatu Men: Portrait of a Sub-Culture, Mbugua Wa Mungai, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, says that the crews depicted themselves as the underdogs against instruments of the state. They saw their transgressive practices as self-empowering, mocking those in power. It was protest and self-affirmation.
The Kibaki administration that came to power in 2002 would have none of that. In February 2004, it brought in a raft of safety regulations known as the ‘MichukiRules’. For the first time, atatu drivers and conductors also had to don uniforms of blue andmaroon, respectively. The PSVs were further required to have a bright yellow belt painted along their mid-torsos up on which major stops on a given route were to be displayed.
These rules stabbed right at the heart of what made matatus tick – their aesthetics. There were immediate protests and boycotts before the operators eventually complied. In the years since – and through a statement of support by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 – a sort of hybrid rule system has emerged where matatus keep their graffiti, and certain minibuses operate without a yellow line but use speed governors. At the minimum, matatu men keep their flashy outfits but wear the required jackets when policemen come into sight.
There are, of course, allegations of corruption that allow flaunting of all rules. Whatever the case may be, for matatu artists such as Moha this means he remains in business and gets recognition while he’s at it. In 2010, a young university student started the annual Nganya Awards. Nganya is slang for ‘flashy matatu’ and Dennis Bikambo was always arguing with his friend over which matatu was the best. He decided to put it to a public vote and invited commuters to nominate and support their preferred matatu.
Pagent on wheels
Bikambo says: “I love the culture and wanted to recognise the players but also promote road safety.” The Awards are held during the festive season, with road-accident survivors regularly speaking at the event.
Bikambo is adamant about letting the people decide which vehicles reign supreme and has no intention of including a judging panel. On the day of the event, a category called ‘Event Grand Entry (Swag)’ calls on nominees to pull out all the stops to win the crowd. Past antics have included a Hummer towing in a matatu; one was escorted by outriders, another by camels. One time a matatu arrived on a flatbed truck.
Matatus come to the pageant kitted out with Wi-Fi, mini-fridges, power sockets, bull bars, sun roofs, TV screens with headphones behind each seat and horns boisterously blaring. Some matatus have even installed the ultimate accessory – what is termed a ‘hater screen’: a powerful projector linked to the main video feed and pointed at the ground adjacent to the matatu to show people what they’re missing inside the matatu.
These upgrades don’t come cheap. Moha recalls making adjustments worth KSh500,000 on a 14-seater matatu, but others have been known to spend as much as Ksh7m. The owners’ intention is to recoup their investment, using the awards as a marketing strategy. They also often charge a premium once the matatu returns to its regular route.
Those willing to pay twice their regular fare just to board a nganya are usually millennials, who espouse the culture and still have a bit of a Peter Pan syndrome. Their loyalty is fickle though. Trend chasers flock to the latest usurper on the road, relegating previous champions to wang’ora (slang for ‘jalopy’) status.
Peacocking contests aside, matatus provide a quick snapshot of the country’s psyche. They are moving galleries of bygone headlines: a pre-grey-haired Obama, the once-dreaded ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. They even tell of Kenyans’ collective love for Facebook and Jesus Christ. Jalopy and flashy matatu alike, matatus have the ability to carry the living memory of a city. Wa Mungai argues that a good many despondent citizens find emotional salve by vicariously sharing in the dream life of their idols. If so, the matatu will certainly live long and prosper, and you won’t find Moha complaining.
From the February 2017 print edition of The Africa Report magazine