Waweru Janet Njeri talks about the unusual public transportation system in Kenya, her home country 

Buses and mini-vans are used as a mode of transport everywhere in the world, but in Kenya they are known as ‘matatus’, the Swahili name for minibus. Being a third world country, this mode of transport is used by 70% of the population in Kenya because most of the people don’t have the ability to buy their own vehicles. Throughout the country these matatus ply from city center to rural areas and back.

Most people, including foreigners, find matatus interesting to travel in because almost all of them have been highly modified by their owners, offering travelers a good music system, comfortable seats as well as highly decorative external modifications. For this reason, the Kenyan matatus are quite unlike any other kind of public transport.

Over the past few years the Kenyan matatu industry has come a long way. For some, it’s just a means to get around the city, but for others it’s an entertaining business. A few years back, the only mode of public transport available were big 30 or 60 seater buses which normally followed routes with the most traffic. They also had ragged old seats which were full of dust, no matter what the season was. But matatu buses are totally different. They are fast and have been modified for the comfort of commuters with features such as 60” LCD screens, artistically drawn graffiti and often a blasting music system.

After the matatu were introduced, the Kenyan transport business was transformed into a fast growing industry. Small Nissan vans (14 seater) took the country by storm: each one was modified in its own unique way and many bore the names and photos of local and international artists and celebrities. This of course acted as a way to attract Kenyan youth, and it proved very successful. Many young people will only specifically board their favorite matatu, even if it means waiting for quite a long time.

As well as the driver, the matatus operate with an extra worker known as the tout. His job is to collect the bus fare and alert the driver where the commuters want to stop. The tout is also responsible for the accounts of the business: he must keep all records of the matatu’s expenses and give them to his employer upon request, usually every end of the week.

Due to the high rate of un-employment and the brotherhood that the touts have amongst themselves, they operate on ‘trips’, for example from the main bus terminus to town, then from town back to the main terminus. So if one tout goes on one trip, the next trip is for the next one, although there is one major tout who controls them and pays them depending on the distance each one has gone.

The bus fare is not fixed: it depends with the kind of matatu, time of day and he distance. Sometimes even the weather can change the price: when it is raining, the bus fare is hiked above the usually rate for sunny and calm weather. Prices are also hiked during morning hours when people are going to the offices and school and rush hours when everyone is coming from the office. New or modified Matatus also charge a higher amount than old or unmodified ones. These new matatus are popularly known as ‘Ng’anya’, a slang word for something new and hyped.

The maximum number of persons matatus should carry is fourteen, but desperate sometimes call for desperate measures and more people are sometimes squeezed in. The matatu drivers apply this policy when they are caught up in traffic, which is worst during the morning and evening hours, since they have to make their money at the right time or else they will fail and won’t get good money for the day. In the rush hours you will also find the drivers speeding and even overtaking on the pavements in order to get to their destinations on time.

Traffic police are meant to stop this sort of dangerous driving from happening, but they often make things worse due to corruption. When they get hold of a speeding or overtaking driver they ask him or her for money and they let them go. Drivers have become accustomed to this so they no longer worry about breaking the traffic laws. They just keep the bribe money to one side and when they arrive at a police check they simply give it to the concerned party. On the return journey they can carry excess passengers too and nobody wıll say a word to them.

All in all, the matatu business is a well paid blue collar job which earns about $100 a day. It is a very interesting job and a very entertaining means of transport for the local residents. More and more matatus are added to the streets of Kenya every day in order to cater for the needs of the residents as the population increases and the nation develops.