The Matatu—Kenya’s Colorful Carrier


A VISITOR to Kenya is never short of superlatives when describing his trip. An elephant matriarch, a majestic lion, and a crimson sunset are vivid images that remain with the traveler. Here, the beauty is vast and varied. However, on the many roads in the area, there is an attraction of another kind—the versatile matatu. This name refers to a group of public transport vehicles. Their fascinating characteristics have made them a most popular means of transportation in Kenya.

The origin of the matatu is as interesting as its mode of operation. The first of its kind was a dilapidated Ford Thames model, a remnant of the fleet used by British soldiers in Ethiopia during the second world war. In the early 1960’s, a Nairobi resident used this jalopy to ferry some friends to the center of the city, asking them to contribute a meager 30 cents each for the fuel. * Soon thereafter, others took note of the financial gain that the old vehicles could bring. Thus, many were converted into 21-passenger carriers, with three parallel wooden benches serving as seats. This format is similar to that of the old bolekajas of Nigeria. Each person paid the original cost of three 10-cent coins per trip. That may explain why the vehicles got the name matatu—from a Swahili word tatu, meaning “three.” Since then, the matatu has undergone a complete metamorphosis, with current models bearing little resemblance to their rattling predecessors. Yes, today’s matatu is a flashy vehicle described by one Kenyan daily newspaper as a “jet-shaped and rainbow coloured projectile.” This is not the product of the cottage industry of the ’60’s!

Riding in a matatu can be an exhilarating experience, especially when the driver hacks his way through heavy city traffic! Let us take a short trip around Nairobi in a matatu and sample this feeling.

 Fascinating Attraction

Our journey will start at a yard where dozens of these vehicles are parked waiting to disperse in different directions. It is one o’clock in the afternoon, and the area is a beehive of activity, with people trying to locate the particular matatu that will take them to their destination. Some of the passengers are heading up-country, a journey that will take several hours. Others are going a few miles away from the city center, perhaps to have a quick meal. The matatu comes in handy.

Have you noticed that most of these vehicles are sporting several bright colors? Well, this is more than a means of enhancing their appearance. There are customers who opt to ride in the most attractive matatu. A closer look at the vehicles also reveals several names painted on the sides. Some of these describe current themes—for example, “El Nino,” “Millennium,” “The Website,” “Internet,” and “Dot Com.” Others such as “Meek” and “Missionary” indicate desirable human qualities or achievements. The closest rival to the matatus’ scintillating appearance is the jeepney of the Philippines. Interestingly, the jeepney is also a by-product of the second world war.

The wooing of passengers creates quite a scene. Despite the visible signs on vehicle windshields indicating their routes, conductors shout at the top of their voices while drivers honk melodious tunes. Do not be surprised to see signs on some matatus for “Jerusalem” or “Jericho.” Should you board one of these, you will end up, not in the Middle East, but in eastern suburbs of Nairobi bearing these Biblical names. With the conductors attempting to usher customers into almost every matatu, it is little wonder that many are having a hard time choosing the one to use!

Welcome aboard the Strawberry! Perhaps the ride will prove to be as sweet as the fruit. It appears that many prefer this particular matatu, since it has taken only a few minutes to fill. Low music coming from small speakers hung in the ceiling soothes the passengers. However, do not think that this is true of all matatus. Some have been known to have huge loudspeakers under the seats,  from which earsplitting music emanates. Well, it is now over ten minutes since all the seats were taken. Yet, our matatu has not moved an inch. Why the delay? The aisle between the rows of seats has yet to be occupied by standing passengers. Soon there is hardly any space left for one to turn. In fact, the matatu will probably stop several times along the way to collect more passengers.

Finally we are on the move. Total strangers share in animated conversation, mainly on the topics of the day. It is like a marketplace. Beware, though, of paying too much attention to the discussion. Some have been known to miss their destination because of being so involved in such discussions.

We mentioned that a matatu is versatile. It is not tied to one particular route. To beat a self-imposed deadline, a driver will use any available space including pavement meant for pedestrians—at times missing some by inches. Meanwhile, the conductor’s job is not easy. He is trying to collect fares from the noisy passengers, some of whom are less than cooperative. Yet, he rarely entertains petty squabbles. Either the passenger pays or the matatu stops immediately and he is told to alight—sometimes in an unkindly manner! The conductor alerts the driver of those wishing to disembark, while at the same time he is on the lookout for others desiring to board. He signals the driver by whistling, tapping the roof, or ringing a bell strategically located near the door. Though there are designated stops for all public service vehicles, the matatu can stop anywhere at any time, either to pick up or to drop off passengers.

Having left the city center, we are now in a small suburb, where the majority of the passengers are getting off. It is time for the matatu to make a return trip to the yard it came from. It will pick up more people along the way. These will have the same experience we did. Without a doubt, our ride in the Strawberry, albeit bumpy, was enjoyable.

Here to Stay

With an average of 30,000 vehicles, the matatu transport industry in Kenya has transformed itself from the war remnant  it was decades ago to a vibrant, multimillion-dollar empire. Its versatility, however, has created some problems. For example, drivers have been accused of failing to adhere to traffic laws governing other road users, and many regulations have been enacted by the authorities to tame the industry. Occasionally the sector has reacted to such maneuvers by withdrawing services, thus inconveniencing thousands of people who rely on matatus daily. While not all may like the matatus’ operating system, these vehicles do provide an alternative mode of quick transportation for the low-income earners of this region.


^ par. 4 The shilling, Kenya’s basic monetary unit, is divided into 100 Kenya cents. One dollar (U.S.) is worth approximately 78 shillings.

[Picture on page 22, 23]

A Ford Thames model

[Credit Line]

Noor Khamis/The People Daily