If you think New York is the city that never sleeps, you haven’t yet been to Kenya’s Nairobi.
Apart from being a hub of African nationalities, with streets crowded with people from Somalia, Ethiopia, and from as far away as Ghana and South Africa, Nairobi is often associated with the busy life that most Africans aspire to have, but are not always able to cope with.
There is nothing outwardly negative about being busy in the city, not when you navigate from scent to scent thanks to the vivid flavours that excite your appetite. But the sight that will catch you wondering whether or not you are still in reality, is Kenya’s incredible culture of public transport.
In Kenya, the common busses, dearly nicknamed “Matatus”, form trails of light and fury as they zig-zag through the day’s heat, and roam around in Nairobi’s cool nights. A bus that goes beyond the objective of merely transporting people from one location to the other, but in so doing, ends up creating a unique opportunity for all people, from all walks of life, to share in an experience of adrenaline, music, and visual sensations.
Here are some ways in which Kenya’s public transport is uniting the world’s most diverse cultures!
- Bringing Art and People Together
The story of the Matatu and its outward artistic appeal goes back to the fact that the Kenyan authorities have defined Graffiti and street art as something undesirable and, in fact, illegal. Street art, in Kenya, has a long history of being associated with the organized crime that so often dominates the incredibly urbanized cities of Kenya. For this reason, it is mandated by law that all forms of street art are to be immediately removed from public view.
The law notwithstanding, Kenyans have not let themselves be deterred. Instead, they have turned to public transport to continue their interaction with graffiti art.
A Matatu is clearly defined by its incredibly intricate art work. Each bus sports a thematic graffiti-styled illustration with subjects ranging from trendy celebrities (Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Cristiano Ronaldo) to simple spaces for local artists to showcase their art.
There are artists who are well known within the Matatu industry, and they are said to take, on average, three months to complete an entire make-over of an otherwise ordinary bus.
This offers an alternative means of expression through art: since it cannot be stationary (on the streets), art becomes mobile, on each bus!
This might feel like a forced relationship, but Matatu commuters have reached the stage where they can no longer live without the abundant sight of Matatu art, to the point where Matatus use art to attract clients!
- Breaking Down the Barriers of Social Class
Typically, when we think of public transport, especially in African countries, we associate its use with those of a lower income, usually the working class.
The middle and upper classes are characterized by owning their own means of locomotion, leaving public transport to those who have no alternative.
In Kenya, however, Matatus have long since erased this imaginary divide, as every person, no matter the level of income, can be seen entering a Matatu at any point of the day.
The Matatu appears to contradict socially identified luxuries. Being public, a Matatu often boasts of top technology such as plasma TVs and high potential speakers, which play the most current music full blast. Some of these busses even have Wi-Fi for their passengers to enjoy while in transit.
Stepping in and out of Kenya’s public transport system is a translucid experience. Upon entering, the passenger leaves behind his or her social inequality preoccupations, and enters into a community that is joined together by a common denominator: the eventual destination.
This is a phenomenon that has been achieved thanks to the fact that the supply of Matatus lines up with demand. Nairobi’s current population stands at, approximately, 4-5 million inhabitants, giving a lot of reasons for Matatus to operate in numbers, and smoothly. Owning a vehicle earns you an express ticket onto some of Africa’s busiest roads, and every Kenyan, rich or not, wants to avoid that.
As a result, the Matatu creates an environment where all riders see each other for their human qualities, and disregard their social background.
- The Hallmark of Cultural Cohesion
So what’s really so great about Matatus?
Many will offer diverse considerations and justifications as to why Matatus are much more than mere ways to move around. The most important thing about a Matatu is not the way it operates, but the purpose it has come to serve.
Getting to your final destination is a bonus, the real gain from the experience is having the chance to interact closely with Kenya’s diverse social landscape. Depending on the driver, a Matatu could be playing the latest Beyoncé hit, or broadcasting local news.
Several organizations and agents of civil society have identified Matatus as effective means of mass communication, targeting them as partners to spread information on relevant issues.
The inclusion of Wi-Fi inside Matatus bridges the profound gap that exists to separate many Africans from access to information through technology. Kenyans are among the most active Africans on the internet, giving them the possibility of making their opinions highly informed, and thus expanding their participation with the world at large.
The probability of sitting next to a Somali-born woman, or conversing with a Senegalese NGO worker, is much higher than one would expect in any other normal form of public transport.
In a Matatu, you have no option but to talk, to interact, and to get some valuable insight on the culture and way of living of Kenyans, as well as how those who are not Kenyans have found their own space in the country.
Finally, there are many simple and seemingly small aspects of our societies that we may neglect, such as the role of public transport in serving as an agent of cultural cohesion. Kenya’s Matatu system is just one example of the innovative ideas that can come about as a reaction to sanctions, whether by the government or by external agents.
Kenyans have demonstrated that their relationship with graffiti art is stronger than any prohibition, and that they are able to interact with each other, and with technology, in ways we had not previously thought of, or that we may have neglected.