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It’s Nairobi! Matatus and public transport in Kenya’s capital

In the Kenyan capital, the public transport is itself one of the sights – and a part of local culture that has survived  a temporary ban, continuing to thrive now having been legalised again. Maren Okoth shows the pictures and the sound

”Black is the new red, art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed” is the message on one public transport vehicle in Nairobi city.

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The first time one uses a matatu – a public minibus – in Nairobi will, undoubtedly, be an experience that is difficult to forget.

The initiate will end up with mixed feelings of amazement at the creativity expressed in these vehicles and bewilderment at this unique transport system.

The Nairobi transport system stands out globally thanks to its distinctive features. Many who have visited Kenya view the matatus as a tourist attraction, marvelling at the innovation of the Kenyan commuter industry.

Different routes have different graffiti on the matatu body, while some have gone even further to customise the interior of the vehicles.  Stickers, CDs artistically arranged on windows, large television screens at the front, enhanced seating, and music speakers are among the common trends used for customisation.

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Nozzy Custom, a graffiti artist who has revamped some of these matatus, points out that it’s not an easy skill – but with talent you can thrive in this industry.

Custom says that this art is made on the streets and there is no school that can teach such creativity.  The choice of graffiti majorly depends on a client’s needs, but they always ensure the client settles on something ”smarta” (creolised swahili, sheng which means smart). The art is basically informed by lifestyles which connect many Kenyans – through music, like hip hop, reggae, ragga muffin and gospel, as well as sports and movies.

It takes about two weeks to complete the aerography on the outside of matatus. However, completion time also depends on status of the matatu.  The older it is, the longer it takes since they have to scrap the entire body before they give it a brand new look. For the the newer ones, it is easy since all it needs is paint or stickers.

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Ten years ago, such art would be done clandestinely and a matatu with excessive graffiti would mainly operate at night to evade police arrest. In order to restore sanity on the roads and as a way of reforming the rogue transport sector, former transport minister John Michuki (now deceased) imposed new rules. All matatus had to be plain in colour, and have a yellow strip all round indicating the permissible number of passengers it can accommodate (14- 25, depending on size of the minibus), and the indication of the route and area the matatu operates within. “Business was low at the time,” says Nozzy Custom.

This was however reversed by the current president Uhuru Kenyatta a few months ago. The art was resuscitated from its death bed. He lifted the ban, saying that the art is also a source of livelihood for many young people who have taken it as a career.

Indeed, it has employed many and it is currently a booming business. As more matatus have welcomed the idea of graffiti, they have become profitable for the artists. Doing solely the artwork on the body is approximately Ksh. 300,000 ($3,000), while doing both the graffiti and customisation on the inside is roughly Ksh. 1.3miliion ($13,000).

Many matatus are also looking into graffiti business due to an awards ceremony, locally known as Nganya (creolised Swahili meaning matatu) awards that recognizes those with the best look in terms of graffiti. Mawembe (Razors), as it is christened, is among the matatus that won the last awards, claims the matatu crew.  They say they won the judges’ hearts due to the graphics and colours. Other than the flashiness of a vehicle, the defining categories that are considered in these awards include safety, best driver and conductor, and most compliant route.

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Despite these remarkable features, there remains public outcry at the loudness of the music and the reckless driving that can cost lives in these vehicles.

“When will the drivers learn not to play loud music,” says Dennis Waithera. “I hate it when they think that the more loud it is, the more we will hear. They don’t know it’s noise after all,” laments Paul Maina.

Those that play loud music are quick at defending themselves, saying it is one of the ways of letting you know that you have arrived in Nairobi.

Ironically the United Nation Environmental Program (UNEP) has its headquarters in Kenya, and one of the areas they work around is pollution. Yet they have so far failed to contain what critics call the noise pollution of the matatus.

Words: Maren Okoth

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