I landed pretty late into the evening, or early into the morning, whichever way you chose to see it. What I remember is the girl next to me telling me about how she disliked Matatus.
The next day I hopped onto one, inevitably, as this is how Kenyans move. For the fare of Ksh 30, “30 bob”, you get the opportunity to ride on a luxurious bus, often equipped with a huge plasma TV playing some Beyoncé music video with no audio, since the music came from the speakers and would probably be completely different. The TV was just for decoration. There was a sign in Kiswahili, translated to me as: “If you are in a rush, stop at a station and load yourself up”. Implying, of course, that punctuality here was not the main concern.
So I liked the whole vibe of a Matatu. Old ladies looking out the windows, cursing this generation in their whispers; some young boy in the thug life shaking his head to the beat; and me, eyes expanded just taking it all in.
Eventually I asked, “how come there’s no street art in Nairobi?”, and then I understood. According to the explanation I got, public opinion understood street art as rebellion, as a means of corrupting the youth. There was some relation made between the crime scene and graffiti, and what these things inspire in young people. So all that rebellion moved to a moving body, what better than the public transport system!
I loved it.
And the man driving the car one of these nights loved it too. In fact, though he was now a taxi driver, he looked proud to have been in the “industry”. He started, “the Matatu industry is surprisingly profitable! You just need to get yourself a bus. Then you have 3 months to pimp it up. There are special people who are responsible for that, different artists, for different themes… for example, you might notice a lot of Jay-Z themed Matatus, this is because that’s the trend. And artists make a lot of money out of it.”
If you really think about it, the idea of moving “rebellion” to the public transport domain is the most effective way for both artists and the general public to interact. People, of all ages, and most classes, use Matatus on a daily basis. Loud music and odd artistic concepts have become part of their subconscious. How boring and terribly mundane is it to enter a public bus with nothing but the certification of the government in it. That is purely a service, a utility. The interactions within the public bus are almost non-existent, meaningless.
In a Matatu, however, there will always be the old lady who is frustrated; the man complaining that the music is too loud, and the young people who are currently beefing with Beyoncé.
I wonder how this reflects in the psyche of Kenyans. They might not be aware of it, but people of Nairobi appeared surprisingly open-minded, and just borderline crazy! The integration of art in the social life of Kenyans is different than the one in the streets of Johannesburg. Here, you have no choice but to develop a relationship with art and all it aims to materialize.
But the Matatu is not just an unnecessary act of rebellion, or a waste of money. It’s, ultimately, a reflection of the Kenyan subconscious. It’s a direct translation of the driver’s state of mind.
“Thanks for getting it”, the taxi-driver, former Matatu-driver, said with a smile.
CC: Xiaojun Deng