8 November 2016
Kenya's matatu buses are 12- and 14-seater urban transport vehicles – a little
bigger than the average South African minibus taxi – that have become a
permeating part of Kenyan commuter culture since they were first used for urban
and long-haul public transport in the late 1960s. Variations of the matatu can be
found in Uganda and Nigeria.
Matatus are built around a stripped chassis of a conventional one- or two-ton
truck, with welded frames and steel panels giving them their bus shape.
The buses are painted vibrant colours and designs, often featuring hand-painted
portraits of prominent Kenyan and global cultural figures, pop stars and politicians,
and spray-painted slogans. The buses also play loud, local music to drum up
business around bustling terminals in Nairobi and other cities.
Drivers often spend up to $20,000 (about R267,000) and a lot of time
customising their buses, ensuring they outclass their rivals and appeal to riders.
With increasing competition from improved municipal transport systems, metered
taxis and a burgeoning Uber presence, and even the smaller, more conventional
minibus taxi, the matatu has to fight hard to stand out and attract business.
Government regulation is also threatening to curtail the matatu tradition, out of
concern for public safety and in an effort to curtail air and noise pollution. In 2006,
a law that banned the buses' art and music was implemented, to much public
outcry. The law lead to a dramatic drop in the number of bus operators in Kenya.
That law was eventually lifted in 2015, but drivers and fans of the buses are
concerned that a proposed new regulation to ban the larger, 14-seater buses may
begin to wipe out the cultural tradition of the matatu, and more importantly, the
Nairobi resident Brian
Wanyama began the Matwana Matatu Culture website to
document the vibrant traditions of the buses and to protect the heritage of what
they represented. He told CNN in October 2016 that the buses were Kenya's
"museums on wheels".
Wanyama's venture has expanded to incorporate social media and an online
video channel, all highlighting Kenyan youth culture within the context of the matatu
buses. "It's something that's in (the youth's) blood," he told the news agency. "When
you see the matatus and the art, you really understand Nairobi."
One of the more popular matatus seen on the website is The Flash, with its
meticulously painted tribute to the comic book hero on the exterior and high-tech
lighting, free on-board wi-fi and the latest audio-visual equipment on the inside.
Using his various online channels, Wanyama and his team evaluate buses and
artworks, interview drivers and artists, as well as keep fans up to date about new
music and youth culture in the city.
Above all, his mission is to safeguard matatu culture for future generations,
saying that "without it we wouldn't have a way of expressing ourselves".
"The culture needs to have a sense of belonging," he explains. "If we do
nothing about it, it might really come to an end."
Source: AFKInsiderSouthAfrica.info reporterWould you like to use this article in your publication or on your website?
See: Using SouthAfrica.info
Kenyan matatus are privately owned minibuses used by urban commuters. Often decorated with colourful original art and playing local music, they are often seen to be representative of Kenyan youth culture (Image: Matwana Matatu Culture)