December 9, 2012

Allow me to acquaint you

It’s chaos in Nairobi. 

Or, rather, it was chaos for a few days, but people seem to be moving on now.  Though that’s hardly as gripping a statement as It’s chaos in Nairobi!  And I don’t mean the everyday, predictable chaos that gives this city its flavor.  I mean something specific, something special:


Sure, they’ve already been on strike at least twice since I returned, but this time they mean business.  Or, rather, no business (…it’s a strike-related pun). 

For those who know what matatus are, you'll know how crippling a legitimate strike can be for Nairobi.  And for those who don't know what matatus are, allow me to acquaint you:

While there are also buses in Nairobi, matatus are the primary form of public transport.  They're vans with 12 seats (in 4 rows).  Based on this physical capacity, they carry 10 passengers, 1 driver, and 1 conductor.  That's in Nairobi.  In Kisumu and other areas of Western Kenya, matatus carry 1 driver, 1 conductor, and about 15-20 people.  They're no larger than the matatus in Nairobi, but they do a lot of lap-sitting, and they use wooden boards to create seats across the isle.

Give or take, matatus look like this:

That's a pretty generic looking one.  Often, they're decorated with various stickers or graffiti tags.  It's like the van your friend's older cousin used to park across from the high school and smoke weed out of during calculus class.  The inside is always battered and seats are torn.  Yet, they're often souped up with big speakers and more decorative touches.  The ceilings are padded, I assume to prevent concussions when going over bumps.  There are no seat-belts.  

From the inside.  Blurriness corresponds to bumpiness.  

Tricked out with lights, speakers, and a TV screen.

The conductor rides in back with the passengers and is responsible for collecting money enticing people into the van.  He either sits in the seat next to the door, hollering out their destination (TOOOWwwn!  TOOown!), or to be more efficient, he just keeps the door open and hangs outside of the matatu shouting at people on the sidewalk as they drive along.  

All conductors fold money the same way.  Even flapping outside in the wind.  

Conductor riding outside of the van.

So, back to the point at hand- why were the matatus on strike last week?  On December 1, Kenya implemented new traffic laws and penalty fines that are, supposedly, outrageous.  For instance, you can't "overlap," which means creating multiple lanes, where only 1 is supposed to go.  And you can't drive on the sidewalks.  Outrageous, I say!  How are people supposed to get anywhere without driving on the sidewalks??

This is supposed to be a 2 lane street.

Anyhow, they appear to have returned to work by end of last week, at least in the areas that I frequent.  But you can never really tell.  I’m told that the police are also on strike, but they keep showing up to work to get paid and avoid a governmental reprisal.  But they just stand at their post, wherever that may be, and don’t work.  For me, until otherwise informed, I can’t discern the difference between this and their normal work routine. 

So you never really know.


  1. If it's anything like the taxis in South Africa a strike could bring the country to a stand still.

  2. Hi Kara!! I came across you via Expats Blog, and I had to write and say that I love your site! Your writing is great and you have some fantastic photos. I'm your newest follower! :) If you have time, stop by and say hi!
    I spent some time in Mombasa and so have some matatu experience- they really are something else! :) Look forward to reading your next posts.

  3. Hello Kara! It's such a small world - I was looking for another blog but stumbled across yours, got caught up in reading through your previous posts and then realised 'Hang on, I think I've met this girl!' We joined you and Marketa and Marcel at Chinese Hot Pot one night? Anyhow, great blog, I love reading your posts and being able to relate! I hope Nairobi is still treating you well :) We're about to head off travelling with some friends, but if you're around and interested, we should grab a coffee or dinner again. Cheers, Laura