Matatus are the primary form of transportation in Kenya. A “matatu” can be anything from a fourteen-seat Nissan minivan shuttling people around town, to a full-size bus ferrying dozens of people across the country. For those of you who’ve never been to Kenya: if you’ve ever ridden BART in California, a dalla dalla in Tanzania, or a tuk tuk in India, it’s more or less the same concept—you pay money and they take you places!
Unlike the tame, old buses in Malawi, or the polite motorcycle taxis in Rwanda that provide helmets for their passengers, though, Kenyan transportation is driven by greed and is full of attitude. It’s just the Kenyan—or at least Nairobian—way I guess, but matatus are loud, obnoxious, break all the rules, drive like they own the road, and piss off everyone around them… but I like them!
Citizen journalism in action! I was in a matatu (minibus used for public transportation) after work tonight and I found a hell of a commotion at Church Road and Wayaki Way. It’s not every day you see cars driving on the wrong side of the road—and the Westlands traffic jam never backs up all the way to Safaricom headquarters. Since I was near my stop anyways, I asked the conductor, “Naeza shuka?” (can I get out), then hopped out in the middle of traffic. Our side of the highway was bumper to bumper, but the other side was clear.
It was just about dusk, so I really couldn’t see very far, but I could hear a lot people making noise. As I got closer to Church Road I saw a big group of people. Kenyans like watching car accidents for some reason, and I saw lots of tree branches in the road—a tell-tale sign of a car accident—so I figured it was something like that. I approached the commotion and saw lots of dudes carrying big branches, and hitting matatus which had piled up in the traffic.
Sometimes I’m amazed how much random stuff comes out of my mouth when I’m walking around Nairobi. I’m terrible at conversational Swahili, but it seems like I always have a quip ready to throw back at someone who shouts at me on the street. Here are some I’ve used recently:
“Jina langu si John” (my name ain’t John) to the guy who yells, “Johnny!” (I never understood why they call white guys “John”… I heard it might be related to the British troops stationed here. Maybe John is a common name for a white guy?)
“Hakuna jua” (there’s no sun) to the guy who asks if I wanna buy some sunglasses on an overcast day.
“Nimeshaziona” (I’ve already seen ’em) or “Niko nazo kwa nyumba” (I got those in the house) to the guy selling DVDs.
“Huyu si bibi, ni dada” (she ain’t my girlfriend, she’s my sister) to the guy who asks if I wanna buy roses for the girl I’m walking with.
“Mimi si mtalii” (I ain’t a tourist) to the guy who says, “Jambo“
“Si endi mbali” (I ain’t going far), “Nachukua route 11” (I’m taking route 11… my legs), or “Gari yako haina hewa” (your car doesn’t have any music) to the guy asking if I want a taxi.
I don’t even have to think about what to say most of the time. The words are rolling off my tongue before I even get a chance. I have no idea where it comes from; was I always like this or was it something I learned after living in Kenya for a few years? Maybe it’s the “mjanja” (hustler) Kenyan culture, or maybe I’m just a smart aleck. Luckily people don’t really get mad, they just laugh.
I think I’ve actually made a lot of friends (or at least friendly faces) this way. One DVD guy who stands outside Sarit center always says, “Simba!” (lion… it’s a Rastafari thing) when he sees me, and he knows I never buy. The other DVD guy always remembers that I prefer TV series to movies, and asks if I still want him to find me a copy of The Tudors.
Taxi drivers are the most fun to mess with, though. It’s just so easy! When they see you walking around the parking lot of The Mall in Westlands they immediately ask, “Taxi?” It’s terrible for them because there are like twenty taxis right there, and right next to the taxi rank is a matatu stage. Let me see, taxi for 300 shillings or in a bangin’ loud matatu for 20? Na muambia, “Wee, si tumiangi taxi. Naenda kwa mathree!” (I tell them, “Man, I don’t use taxis. I’m going in a matatu!”).