While to foreigners, Kenya may be synonymous with wildlife, the country means something different to its long-suffering locals. After some intense thought upon it, I came to the conclusion that the most Kenyan thing ever is the matatu. These rowdy public service vehicles exemplify all the best and worst qualities of what it means to be a Kenyan. In fact, I dare argue that the education or miseducation of Kenyans largely happens in these public spaces.

First of all, as a mode of transport, matatus represent our tireless hustling spirit, we who are ever in the hunt for the shilling. If the transport business is big in this country, it is because of the ceaseless economic activity that has made this country able to hold its own among the heavyweights of the continent despite not being as endowed as our peers in terms of mineral wealth and agricultural land. In the same vein, the brightly coloured and graffittied minibuses that own our highways are a representation of our restless creativity and profit-oriented innovation.

A story often recounted by many a Kenyan journalist goes that Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Kenya’s Charles Njonjo once shared an exchange that captured what each country thought of the other. While Nyerere called Kenya a “man eat man” society, Njonjo was quick on the draw and responded that Tanzania was a “man eat nothing society”. If Tanzania is a train, moving slowly but surely on a well-designed track, Kenya is a matatu: rowdy, colourful, intense, rude, vibrant, arrogant, overbearing, capricious, and drunk on its own hype. Charles Njonjo’s clever retort would have been equally at home on the lips of a random Nairobi tout.

Lanky, daring and rude, the Kenyan tout is an interesting character, usually a man in his twenties or thirties. Risking life and limb daily, jumping on and off the speeding matatu, he has normalised danger in his life, wearing it ever so casually. On the other hand, despite perhaps having been a bad student at school, the Kenyan tout can perform convoluted multiple sums in his head; and with an admirable memory, hand back each person the right amount of change, though these days touts seem so forgetful (I blame smartphones!). A darling of young women, the Kenyan tout is equally rude and charming, for he can be nice and persuasive when wooing a passenger to board his matatu but very abusive when challenged by a passenger demanding change. In a sense, our touts resemble in many ways our aggressive brand of politicians.

While the tout is the one who controls the passengers, the driver controls where the matatu goes; our lives are literally in his hands. At his discretion, the driver may speed, overtake, flout traffic rules, take shortcuts and so one. If the tout is the politician who charms, hounds and organises the masses, the driver is the real force in control. In the relationship between the driver and the tout, the latter is usually subordinate, and many touts dream of becoming drivers.

What we don’t see, however, is that behind the driver and the tout is yet another force: the owner of the matatu. After all, the driver and the tout are only employees, they do not own the means of production. Behind the owner, there is yet another force: the Sacco. Behind the Sacco, there is yet another force: the government; which provides the policies that govern the matatu business, and through agents like the traffic police and the NTSA enforces those polices. In the interplay of all these forces, the matatu becomes a site of commerce and politics.

The dark side of all this involves money laundering, corruption, criminality and violence: traffic police run a bribe-collection syndicate targeting the matatu industry; different matatu Saccos fighting for routes or stages may resolve the competition through outright violence; matatus due to the consistently high cash-flow are attractive conduits of illicit wealth that needs to be laundered. While the industry was once briefly strictly regulated during the era of the no-nonsense, Kibaki-era transport minister John Michuki, the famous “Michuki rules” have since been forgotten and anarchy rules, which increases the death toll during accidents as touts regularly exceed the acceptable passenger capacity.

Though it is the touts and drivers that get all the blame, we cannot forget the other forces involved. After all, the owner is waiting for his daily pay-out, and the cops are waiting for their bribes; which means, the driver and tout must work harder to ensure they make an extra buck for themselves. This translates to over-speeding, carrying excess passengers, driving on the wrong lane, among other crimes. The pressure they are under to deliver may also explain their irritation and readiness to defend themselves with off-the-cuff insults. More sadly, it might explain their brutality, how some of them are so focused on money that they are ready to shove a passenger out of the speeding matatu to his/her death over a sum as seemingly insignificant as ten shillings.

To me, the matatu culture is an ideology. Like any system, it has its own logic, in this case violent, rude, extractive and dehumanising. It is a system where no one’s humanity is sacred, and we do not deserve dignity in this public space that we are paying for. If we wanted dignity, we would buy cars or take taxis. It is the usual Kenyan logic that denies dignity to people on the basis of their financial level, as if only the rich have the right to good things. The passengers are forced to shape up or ship out, for no dissent is allowed in this domain where the tout is king. If you want to sit comfortably, you are told, you should have taken an Uber; never mind that since the pandemic we are ever at risk of the emergence of another virus that would find such an overcrowded space a veritable heaven!

With no care for ergonomic design, most matatus are hazardous spaces, with hard metallic edges positioned where your head could smash into them if the driver unexpectedly steps on the brakes. Most of them also lack leg room, which means tall people are forced to twist themselves into uncomfortable positions for the duration of the journey. If all this is not enough to drive you nuts with frustration, some matatus are pimped up with unbelievably loud sound systems, and the speaker could be positioned right next to your ear!

If you are unclear about the ideology of this world, most matatus use stickers to educate their passengers, many of them employing veiled threats and brutal rudeness to make the message hit home. To inform you that the driver does not answer to you no matter how late you are, a sticker will say, “Kama una haraka, shuka ukimbie.” To remind you not to eat snacks in the vehicle, a sticker goes, “Kama hujanunua hapa usikulie hapa.” If you are under the illusions that you are more important than the tout or the driver, a sticker reminds you, “Ungesoma kwa bidi, hungekuwa kwa hii matatu.” If you are the arrogant type that doesn’t want to pay up because you are under the misguided notion that you are being ripped offer, a sticker informs you, “Hii kazi ni ngumu. Tafadhali lipa bila fujo.”

If Kenyans are rude, violent, money-focused, inconsiderate, dehumanising of each other, among so many other negative attributes, I am ready to bet that they developed many of these behaviours in matatus. Yet this is also where urban language and culture are disseminated: with most people learning new Sheng words from their touts and new songs from the mixes played in matatus. This suggests that there is potential to use matatus as tools for social good, given their massive influence on the society; a gap that the government, civil society and other stakeholders keen on bettering the society should not ignore

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