Always Room For One More!

Today I thought I would share with you a tale of how Kenyans travel around town.  This is another article printed originally in the newspaper in Houghton Lake.  Back then, I called it "Creating Space," but the philosophy behind all matatu touts is this - There is ALWAYS room for one more!

At the end of the article I included two links so you can watch video of what the matatus are like now, 23 years later.  Some things remain the same, though the artwork and sound systems have gotten more sophisticated and Nairobi has become a sprawling city - much larger than when we lived there!  Now, on to my story...

It seems no one ever has enough space any more.  American magazines regularly feature tips on organizing your closet better and building shelves in out of the way corners.  We want to utilize every bit of space to the best of its ability.  But I've seen people in Kenya literally create space out of thin air!  Really?  How could that be, you might ask?  Yes, really.  In Matatus.

Matatus are mini-vans or small buses used for transportation in Kenya.  There are bigger city-run buses, but matatus are more numerous and go places that the buses don't.  Riding a matatu is an everyday experience for many Kenyans, but an unforgettable experience for the more adventurous tourist!

Each matatu features a driver and a "manambu" or call guy.  The manambu is the money collector.  He is also the one who jumps out at every stop, calling out where the matatu is headed and persuading people that there's always room for one more person.  That often takes a lot of persuading!

Matatus do have a legal limit of the number of people who can ride at any one time, but people equal money, so the more the merrier is the rule drivers and manambus live by.  Since matatus are privately-owned businesses, the more trips the driver makes and the more people he can squeeze in, the more profitable the day.  Overcrowding is so common that drivers rarely get stopped by the police for a number check.

There are different types of matatus (tatu means 3 in Swahali) in Nairobi.  The vans have 3 rows of seats in back plus the front seat.  At least 3 people squeeze in with the driver.  And in the back?  Anywhere from 10 to 20.  Yes, really.  Then there are the small buses.  They can seat about 25 in back and again, 3 with driver.  But they also have standing room.  It's not uncommon to see faces and lips pressed up against the windows.  I used to think the subways in New York City were bad during rush hour.  Not any more.

A friend one day described the many ways to ride a matatu.  Of course, there's the conventional way - sitting down.  Then there's the standing room only way, where it is so crowded you don't even need to hold on.  There's also the hand on the ceiling method.  And the finger tip grabbing the metal bar that runs along the ceiling way.  Or the tip toe on the edge of the door way.  The manambu usually plays the "door" on the small buses. They always stand in the mini-vans.  Or, actually, I guess they really stoop.  It's surprising they can even straighten up at the end of a day!

Foreigners have funny ways of describing a matatu.  One description I heard was that a matatu is "a box with four wheels, with people hanging out all over, packed in like sardines and music booming from inside."  Another is "a human torture machine." One of my favorites is "a mix between a mobile disco and the stock exchange on a day of boom trading."  One man told me that "riding a matatu is like playing twister on a roller coaster."  My husband Tom said he feels like a live, squirming sardine packed in can.

One recent Sunday afternoon, Tom and I were traveling home with some friends after church.  We passed by the first matatu because it was too crowded.  The next one was empty so we got in and sat down in the back seat.  The four of us fit quite comfortably on the back bench.  Soon, the manambu tapped on the window.  He wanted us to move over and let another woman sit with us.   We told him no, either she rode or the four of us rode.  As he walked away, disgusted with us, we noticed the woman he wanted to squeeze in.  Let me just say it would have been impossible.

Many of the matatus supply music entertainment for their passengers.  The only problem is that the speaker is usually fastened just behind the driver.  The people sitting in the first row often can't hear anything for awhile after they alight.  Western music is popular, but tapes are very expensive.  Matatus usually have 2 or 3 tapes they play unceasingly.  I've often wondered if they rotate tapes with other drivers every week for variety.  For their sake, I hope so.

Probably the most astounding thing about matatus, though, is the reaction of many Kenyans when they learn that America doesn't have them.  They are shocked.  As shocked as you might be reading this story. 

.....I found a couple of you tube videos that show some modern day matatus.  Much of the information is in Swahili, I think, so you won't understand everything.  You will also notice that the seating has gotten a little better - at least in the first video.  Matatus often featured art work, but even that has improved and gotten much more elaborate since we lived in Nairobi. One smart driver also installed wifi to attract riders. Since it can take up to 3 hours to get home at night with traffic, that has definitely attracted more riders.

Lori ZieglerComment