Friday, February 13, 2009

Portrait #69: Matatu!

I love public transportation, especially when it's flexible and keeps moving, getting me to my destination without too much heeing and hawing. Nairobi's matatus were definitely my kind of public transportation.

- Most of them are vans, holding 10-15 passengers, depending on the layout. I think this is the perfect size for a public transport. Small enough for there to be lots of them and thus regular service, but big enough to still feel somewhat anonymous when riding them.

- The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Nairobi was that so many people walk so much! I'm a big fan of pedestrians and being a pedestrian. For the most part, though, when people in Nairobi walk, they seem to walk rather slowly. And there is an overall sense of patience in the air. However, matatus MOVE. They drive fast. In addition, besides the driver, there's always another person working the matatu whose job is to collect fares, but more importantly to herd people on and off the vans as quickly as possible. I have a nice solid bruise on my leg as evidence of this, when I didn't make it into my seat quickly enough and the herder slammed the door on my leg.

- They hold just the right number of people per seats. Apparently this is a new rule - they used to be ridiculously crowded. But now if there are 13 seats on the matatu there are 13 passengers. The vans are usually full or almost full, as the herders really do do their job well. So while it's tight, it's reasonably comfortable.

What more could I ask for in public transport?

But besides being supremely practical, I found matatus to be quite fun to ride, for a few different reasons:

- As a girl who has lived in the Middle East for so long, I was just thrilled to discover that women regularly sit in the front of matatus. Watching us weaving between cars as we leave them in the dust, and observing this and that on the roads we're passing, are great sources of amusement.

- The highlight of matatus, beyond the shadow of a doubt, are the musical themes. Some play no music, but many blast it out. One matatu I rode had R&B blasting so loud I was bouncing higher than the van itself. I was totally dancing along in my front seat. Then my friend, who was sitting in the back, tapped my shoulder to tell me that I was really missing out by sitting in the front. Directly above my head was a TV screen showing the video clips. So the back passengers were getting the full-bodied entertainment. The next day, I rode a matatu whose theme was reggae music. Again, it so loud that bouncing was inevitable and conversations were futile. (This was made more amusing by the fact that a very friendly young woman next to me was having an intense conversation with me but I couldn't hear a word she was saying, so she just kept on talking!) The musical theme that most intrigued me, though, was Gospel. Several matatus have all their windows taped over with pictures of gospel singers and other adverts for gospel music. One had a larger-than-life poster of T.D. Jakes on its back window. Sadly, I never got to ride a gospel matatu.

- Matatus are apparently what makes traffic interesting for cars, taxis and pedestrians. They lead all innovations such as creating new lanes in a backup, they have perfected the weave and the art of cutting across other vehicles, and they are apparently very frequently involved in accidents. From what my friends in Nairobi tell me, I get the impression traffic would be rather tame (boring?) without matatus.

- There have been different points in recent history during which matatus are required to have seatbelts, speed boxes and other such safety mechanisms. And there have been other points in history during which they are not required to do all those same things. What this means, apparently, is that some matatu herders are very strict with where people sit and how, and others are more lenient. Sometimes matatus get pulled over for what may seem to the rest of us as no reason (such as because the person in the back row wasn't wearing a seatbelt) and disputes have broken out between police officers and the matatu's occupants. I haven't had the chance to see one of those interactions, but it sounds fun!

- Only once on a matatu ride did I identify other white people (besides my friend) on the van. While Nairobi is overridden with foreigners, the matatus remain mostly unscathed. So as the only "wuzungus" on the matatu, we enjoyed lots of stares and a handful of friendly-curious conversations. On one ride, the herder and the driver and a passenger or two kept looking at us and talking about us in Swahili. They seemed slightly suspicious and extremely amused. But when we got to our stop, the driver didn't stop, so my friend banged on the ceiling to catch the herder's attention. He looked back at us, we made it clear we were wanting off, and he shouted, for the entire van to hear, "xxxxx fjrwpr WUZUNGU rpwqrpwrw xxxxx!!!" We interpreted that to mean "the wuzungus want to get off!" and alighted, laughing: them at us and us at them.

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