I am a huge fan of public transportation. I’m a sucker for a good train and trams are pretty cool too. But you know, as funny as I thought public transportation was, it has nothing on private transportation. And by this, I do not mean real private transportation, but public transportation that, in some underdeveloped countries, has been privatized – in, for example, a place like Nairobi, Kenya.
Public transportation that has been privatized creates a whole new set of issues of standards and organization that I will not even attempt to delve into at the moment, but it also creates a different sort of hilarity that I never thought transportation could have. In Nairobi they have the large average buses with standardized pricing and rows of seats, but the common mode of transportation is the Matatu (actually, the real common mode of transportation is walking, but that’s less interesting). For all those who read Obama’s first memoir (Gobama!) where he talks about his heart-wrenching trip to Nairobi, they might already know this. But for those who didn’t, Matatus are basically just vans. But like the average road in Nairobi is less a road than a Mario Kart-esque trial of potholes, spiked road belts placed by the police, and all sorts of other obstacles; Matatus are less vans then they are the wishful remnants of what used to be vans. Think Pimp My Ride, Kenya style, and you have got yourself a Matatu.
You can tell a Matatu from a mile away, which is good because there is always a chance that one will hit you. They are tropical-Skittles colored, bright purples and yellows and greens with spray-paint-font words stretched haphazardly across the sides. The words are almost comprehensive slogans, but someone somewhere seems to have gotten confused, resulting in “What’s ‘Beef?” written on the back of one Matatu, while the words, “EAS COAST DOTCOM REPRESENT” are proudly displayed on the inside of another.
Another trademark of Matatus are their sound systems. The bass thumps in accordance to the pothole bumps and if you’re lucky, you ride will include music videos usually played on two tv’s behind the drivers seat.
It was not until Week Two of my internship that I actually rode a Matatu. Edelle, a girl I worked with, was going the same direction as I was, and was assigned to take me home. Having a chaperone seemed a bit silly, but it wasn’t until we got to the corner, that I realized how disoriented I was. There was no line or bus schedule, Matatus whiz as men lean out the opened van doors yelling stops to people on the corners. I squish into the full Matatu and end up with a seat that is both disconnected from the row, and almost disconnected from the floor. But the Matatu starts, the fare-taker jumps in, and that’s it. With every turn my whole chair swung from side-to-side, and just as I realize this, I also realize that the door can’t or won’t close. Besides the lean body of the man standing in the small space next to the door, I am the closest thing to the door, and I know that as much as the fare-taker is trying to hold the door closed, the next time the van swings right, my chair and I are going left. And no amount of strength is going to keep that door closed. But the driver decides that he doesn’t feel like going to his usual stops, and so I change Matatus, and resultantly survive.
Matatu Number Two was rather insignificant–it was just a van. But the third of the day was the true Matatu, blacklights and all. The vinyl seats stuck to your back, but it was barely noticeable through the thumping Zimbabwean-beats and the music video displayed dark toned bodies gyrating on the beach. The blacklight set the tone, perfectly lighting the graffiti stickers on the wall. I realized then, that I might die on a Matatu, but it would probably be worth it.