Rotten apples spoiling Kenya’s matatu culture


Public Service Vehicles in Nyamakima, Nairobi. The matatu industry is the largest transportation service provider in Kenya.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The matatu industry is the largest transportation service provider in Kenya.

Matatus are affordable, compared to taxis, over short distances. This industry has significantly contributed to the country’s revenue; indirectly by facilitating taxpayers’ movement and directly through various levies.

Despite being diligent and business-oriented, Kenyans, especially in the cities, leave ample room for play. Their character as an expressive population manifests in the matatu culture. A couple of matatu saccos have their buses and vans adorned in a wide range of artistry. 

The bodies of these vehicles serve as the canvass where artists are commissioned to bring to life what people tend to gravitate towards at the creative level. Iconic figures, musicians and celebrities are the most featured in the matatu graffiti art, followed by mantras, religious quotes, spiritual symbols, political legends, animations and top film actors.

Others relay cryptic messages that only a particular group can decipher. These ‘pimped-up’ matatus are greatly loved by the younger generation. Many can only board the ornate ones and will never step into the mousy and nondescript ones. 

Multiple plasma screens, Wi-Fi and loud music appeal to them. Top radio presenters and online emcees entertain passengers during rush hours.

Street-smart touts 

There are model drivers and touts who passionately help commuters navigate a first-time trip, rush people to the hospital in case of a medical emergency, and help seat people with disabilities and expectant women in convenient positions.

Giving hawkers a platform to sell their wares further reflects their goodwill. Women drivers and street-smart female touts are on the rise, smashing the glass ceiling of the male-dominated matatu industry. 

However, there are a couple of rotten apples in the basket. The sobriety of some drivers and conductors is often a concern. Reckless driving and ignoring traffic rules are almost routine.

Unruly picking and dropping off passengers, unjustly hiking fares, disputes over cash change and modes of payment, changing of designated destinations and verbal abuse have been a timeless concern.

There was a recent case of a female passenger being thrown out of a moving vehicle by a conductor and incurring severe injuries. Matatus are often in a scramble for passengers, turning city routes into racing tracks and thus endangering lives.

Dropping off passengers while the vehicles are still in motion is another serious issue. People have died and others maimed after falling off while disembarking from moving vehicles.

They should realise that not everyone has the agility and dexterity of a conductor. To be fair to the matatu people, some passengers demand to be dropped off at inappropriate points. 

However, the conductors should stand firm and say no to these risky demands. We implore all matatu industry stakeholders to work towards road safety and preserve the good culture. 

Ms Hinga is a creative writer. [email protected]


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