The art of the matatu

Posted: 24 October 2013

Blog from Sam Moodey

It wouldn't have been a complete Kenyan experience had I not used a 'matatu', Kenya's most popular form of public transport. Translated from the Swahili as 'taxi', I cannot think of a less apt description.

One journey is a harrowing enough experience. Alas, I take 4 a day. Having done so for a few weeks now, I have a vague understanding of what not to do when using this bastion of Kenyan culture.

Just to give a little background, matatus are essentially 14-seater minibuses. And by 14-seater, I mean that sane people would squeeze 8-9 in at a push. It's like sardines. And I used to hate sardines. Linked closely with the local petty crime scene, they are cheap, everywhere, and therefore frequented by anybody that doesn't have a car.

The matatus are run by a team of two. Mr Driver, replete with some form of Kenyan club/trance beats pounding through the radio, has little concern for the safety of himself, his passengers, or anyone on the road. He doesn't care if he cuts somebody up. He doesn't care if he drives along the pavement, or the wrong side of the road. He probably wouldn't (**slight exaggeration alert**) care or stop if he ran over a little child, if it meant he reached his destination quicker, and took on board more customers. Road etiquette is non-existent. Further, his ability to multi-task between driving in the right direction, dropping off and picking up customers, operating the music, keeping an eye out for traffic police, and fitting into any matatu sized gap imaginable, is astounding. His compatriot, Mr Tout, is not much better. With 50 shilling notes in one hand, and drug-induced red pupils, he is intent on squeezing as many people into the van as possible. He has no problems with sitting on your lap without asking if they are struggling for space. (Cue 20 minutes of me looking extremely awkward and embarrassed). Customer satisfaction has never been so low.

Here are a few lessons that I have learnt so far:

They drive where they want

I'm sure there is some vague route but this is only loosely abided by. On one occasion, Mr Tout asked me a question in Swahili. In my typically polite British manner, I replied 'yes', thinking nothing more of it. Little did I know that the matatu was about to embark on an entirely different route. One that would leave me stranded depressingly far from where I was going.

They stop when they want

Unfortunately for Kenya newbies like myself, there are no such thing as 'matatu stops'. This provides a problem when getting both on and off. On my first ride, much to my bewilderment, the matatu zoomed past where I was supposed to get off. Once again, being typically British, I stayed quiet and assumed it would stop soon. Alas, this silence was much to my detriment, as a long walk back, and exhausted feet, would prove.

They charge what they want

Maybe I sometimes get the 'mzungu' price, but it seems that I get charged a different amount each journey. Ranging from 20-50 shillings though, it is still dirt cheap so I can't complain. Retrieving money from your wallet without the possibility of someone stealing it is worthy of an entire James Bond stealth operation in itself. Further, if you don't have small change, you're in trouble. Give the tout a 1000 shilling note (£7-£8) at your own peril.

They leave when they want

If you're in a hurry, they will wait for a good 20 minutes before filling up to the brim. If you have no particular desire to rush, they will usher you into the vehicle like a convict, often without stopping at all, to the blissful tune of Mr Tout shouting 'faster, faster'. Ho hum.

Seat choice is critical

Your choice of seat is fairly pivotal to the satisfaction of the journey. If you're unfortunate enough to be at the back, getting out (i.e. tripping up, pushing other people aside, and falling flat on the pavement) is an ordeal in itself. If you're naive enough to bag a seat near the door, the tout will give you an angry look and point to an empty seat further back. For the lucky two that take the front seats next to the driver, you're in for a comparative 5* treat.

They have an incredible eye for business

When it rains, some realise their customers need to get home ASAP and they double/triple the charges with no apologies. Others place wooden planks across the 20cm wide aisle to ensure extra money for them, and extra torture for us. I even passed one with a 'Free Wi-Fi' sign on the side although I'm not sure whether that was actually true or just a sneaky ploy. Any way to make a bit more dosh, and these guys are on it.

So there you go. Despite this 800-word rant on them, I think I will one day to learn to love them. I may even miss them upon my return. However, I have quickly realised that there is a delicate art to mastering the matatu. One that I am yet to, nor probably ever will, master.