Public transportation: Matatus in Nairobi, Kenya

Please enjoy this guest blog entry by Kurt Wenzing.

During my recent vacation in Kenya, I took my life in my hands on several occasions by being transported by several different vehicles of the same type, known as Matatus. They are vans built to accommodate about 14 people. But on occasion the passengers are “pushed in,” as on a subway in Japan, sometimes with 5 people squeezed into a row designed for 3, sometimes sitting on the lap of a stranger. I guess you are no longer strangers after a ride like this. One passenger had a bag on his lap approx. 3 feet high and 2 feet in diameter, jammed against the ceiling, the seat in front of him, and his lap. Most of the time your knees are jammed against the seat in front of you. I had a seat once next to the door. The passenger next to me was about 350 pounds, and I was squeezed hard against the door. I prayed that the door lock would not fail while I was being pushed against it.

Most roads are only 2 lanes, one in each direction, with many potholes and bumps. During conditions when traffic is traveling fairly smoothly and continuously, the driver moves along at 40 to 50 mph while passing pedestrians and bike riders only inches away. There are often no sidewalks or curbs, so the pedestrians are on the same level as the vehicles, with nothing to deter the vehicle from easing off the roads onto the walkways.

The “conductor,” or money collector, raps loudly with his fist on the wall or ceiling to notify the driver that someone is about to disembark. He also shouts solicitations to potential passengers when stopped at a “bus stop.” When oncoming passengers are loading, he makes the decision as to how many people to push onto the vacant seats, occasionally even when there are no vacant seats. The conductor sometimes stands in the open doorway of the Matatu while it proceeds down the bumpy street, swaying, veering wildly, and bouncing. He also may sit in the lap of the closest passenger to his door.

When the traffic in the lane in which the Matatu driver is traveling slows or stops, he (usually a male driver) simply pulls out into the oncoming lane and drives at up to 50 mph towards the oncoming traffic. At the last moment he will pull back (or force his way back) into the correct lane. Many times a collision seemed inevitable to me. I finally began staring at my feet on the floor so I could avoid seeing the traffic coming directly at our vehicle. I think that drivers in passenger cars realize that the Matatu drivers are going to hit them if they don’t allow them to force their way back in front of them, so for self-preservation they allow it to happen. My experience in Matatus was mostly in Nairobi, the capitol of, and largest city in, Kenya.

I once observed, when the traffic was at a standstill, the driver could not even get into the oncoming lane. So, he had the conductor get out and walk over to some traffic “barriers” placed for ongoing construction in a road being repaired. The conductor moved the barriers, and the driver drove down the newly constructed gravel. When we reached the end of the “new” road, the driver then drove onto the sidewalk and proceeded for another 50 feet, scattering pedestrians left and right. Then he drove back onto the main road, having progressed about 600 feet further into the stopped traffic.

Part of the traffic problem is that there are few traffic lights, so at most of the intersections, drivers just pull into the intersection from all sides, and the bravest move through first! Also, some drivers ignore the few traffic lights that exist.

To make the ride even less desirable, the music is played almost always at VERY high decibels. I would guess it is about twice as loud as I would ever play my music, even though I am known for playing music loudly.

Another factor to be considered is that when traffic is VERY poor, meaning even worse than the usual poor standards, the driver simply leaves his designated route. He may go blocks away, but parallel, to his planned route, while heading in the same general direction. Thus, he may drop you blocks away from your planned/expected destination.

There are other options for public travel, such as buses and taxis. They are considerably more expensive and slower. Although the Matatu rides were unusual, the photo safaris in the wildlife sanctuaries/preserves were wonderful and well worth the transportation problems in Nairobi.

I am home now, safe but with a few new gray hairs.

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  1. Naureen says:

    Haha! I have been to Kenya, and reading your experience on the Matatus made my cry and laugh. While in Nairobi, I did not have the first hand experience of riding one, but I saw the amount of people hanging out of the Matatus, and wondered how this was done! So getting to read a rider’s experience is somewhat awe-inspiring. Originally I am from Pakistan, and public transportation such as the Matatus are not uncommon there. I have had the pleasure of riding the public transportation in Pakistan and I can safely say that 99% of what you have written applies to Pakistan as well.
    Glad to know you made it back home safely. One can definitely appreciate home after such experiences! 🙂

  2. Kurt Wenzing says:

    Naureen,you missed an opportunity for a “new” experience. You should add this to your bucket list. BUT…only one ride!

    Outside Nairobi was much tamer and safer.

    The hangers-out that I saw were only one on each matatu, and they were all males and were ticket-sellers.

  3. […] know many travelers think of buses as just a notch above matatus, […]

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