MATATUS: AN URBAN PRIDE OR MOBILITY STRUGGLE?
When I was a teenager and literally not doing much with my time, a friend’s father gave me 5k so I could take his son on a matatu trip all over Nairobi-wherever I pleased. The young man had never set foot in a JAV ever! A few years prior as a highly testosterone fuelled boy, I got a sex offer from this girl from a private high school who abandoned ship when I asked her which matatus went to Nyari. “Who uses matatus anyway?” She had asked before I ignored her forever. We had met at a church camp. Many years later as a drum tutor at an international school, a student invited me to her birthday party and instructed me to “just tell your driver to drop you at my address.”
Then the brain expanded and I started learning about other places far beyond. My first girlfriend detested big cars. Where she came from, people walk or take trains or if very necessary, they drive small cars.
So I found myself in a whole new crisis as an adult than I was as a child because all my life, I never went to school on a private car or a school bus. I used matatus, bicycles or walked. In high school, we sometimes got to school late because we would wait for the fanciest nganya or simply took extra rides to enjoy its ambience and hot girls from other schools. I’m glad I was privileged enough to have been young at the prime time of Matatu Culture in Nairobi. I also had the time, energy and money to enjoy it fully-even though my teachers and mentors back then thought it was a wanton waste of time and introduction to thug life.
There are several obvious reasons why some people don’t use matatus and I won’t let myself get into their personal problems or comfort zones. Mine is about matatus, the streets and policies. According to me, the period between 2005-2009 was the prime time of Matatu Culture, and it didn’t last long. It’s the time when even vehicle body manufacturers designed bodies specifically for ma3s. It wasn’t like today when an investor buys a plain bus then spends extra millions in changing just the shape alone. Those days, only Rongai had buses for mathrees (and I think we all know why :p) Otherwise, all routes had either the Nissan mini vans called Niso (pronounced knee-saw) or the big mini buses like Rockstar of 58 and they were all thoroughly pimped out.
Pimped out didn’t mean a 16” screen in front with a moody sound shitstem. Those Mats, especially Buru 58s and LA 15s could have a 36”screen inside and a similar one facing outside on the rear windscreen, maybe just so you know which latest videos they were playing. Each seat would have a smaller screen behind it, and some had more screens hanging from the roof because it was still legal to overload. There was no wifi then but some had reclining seats and aircons.
Before Michuki brought chuki and some sanity on the roads, matatus in Nairobi were a rare type of extreme mobile urban art. I remember Moha Grafixx becoming an overnight celebrity and soon after, graphics were not just paint and stickers on the vehicles but a proper design process that saw some matatus come with seat covers and even steering wheels whose design matched the overall theme of the whole JAV.
If I’m not wrong, Dj Kalonje too became a thing around that period because some youth would never get into a jav unless it played D-D-D-D-D-DJ KALONJE…meh…meh…meh…meeeehhh!!!
Music and graphics aside, matatus conductors stopped being referred to as such long time ago just after Bethlehem when Moi was still Brezident. Ten years ago they were still called Condaz (swagged up from conductor) or Kangez (from makanga-Swahili for conductor) and you can still call them that today. Kangez used to be the fashionistas in those days. That’s why you’ve probably heard about the stories of …our school girls are getting raped by these matatu conductors… I don’t think anyone ever got raped, maybe willingly had a romp in a JAV but not rape. Kangez used to dress in the latest street fashion and even girls agree that they like men with money and some outstanding qualities, both of which Kangez have. Even today, I still see girls that I’d consider completely out of my league kiss Kangez just because the guy is always holding some money and a possible free ride to Wherever.
But even with a youthful president, a squandering Youth Fund and several international media coverage on our matatus, someone still thinks tourism has to be about wild animals and maasais with red ochre on their heads. I can’t believe that our policy makers still think that the few and hard to find government tenders are enough for the youth majority of this nation to earn a living.
If all matatus become one uniform colour, where will all the graphic designers and graffiti artists get money from?
If they rid our matatus of music, videos and shining lights, how will all the audiovisual sellers and engineers earn their living?
For survival sake, even the musicians, DJs and MCSK make money out of the Matatu Culture.
Therefore, killing the whole matatu industry and urban culture as the solution to traffic congestion and road accidents is like trying to eradicate corruption by depleting the entire government.