– “The best word to describe Nairobi traffic? HECTIC! After hectic, it is CRAZY.”
– “You know you’re in Nairobi when the main topic of conversation is the terrible traffic . . .”
– “Woe unto you if any part of your day involves getting from one side of the city to the other.”
Comments like these pop up whenever a newspaper, internet site or travel book discusses transportation in the city of Nairobi.
In September 2019, Nairobi was ranked as the fourth most congested city in the world,
an improvement over its 2017 second place ranking.
Knowing we’ll be visiting several tourist sites while in Nairobi, I looked into public transportation. Along with taxis, Uber, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks), motorcycle taxis (piki pikis) and city-run buses, there are privately owned vehicles called matatus.
Matatus are minibuses that weave and bounce around the city, blaring music and displaying 60s psychedelic-like art as they nimbly steer alternate routes, connecting the city more adeptly and more frequently than other types of transportation. Turning a blind eye to reckless driving, they’re able to dodge traffic jams, something only the single-seat motorcycle taxi can emulate. They’re cheap too, costing no more than $1.50 to go just about anywhere in the city. And they run well after dark.
Each matatu, as required by law, has a crew of two; a driver and a conductor.
The driver’s job is to get the passengers to their destinations as quickly as possible. If that means driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding down a busy street, or reeling around blind up-hill corners, so be it.
The conductor performs many tasks, acting as a circus barker beckoning commuters to choose his bus, collecting fares and signaling the driver when to pick up or drop off passengers. He does all this while he hangs outside the matatu, even when it’s moving.
It is estimated that there are 18 thousand matatus connecting every inch of the city.
Individual matatu buses and routes are privately owned and operated, which means schedules and ticket prices can change at the whim of whoever’s in charge.
Pick up and drop off points are called stages. It’s best to locate your boarding stage well in advance if you’re new to the city.
Even finding the right stop can be tricky. As one travel book put it, “You just kind of have to know.” If you choose the wrong line, you could waste half a day on an already long trip.
As with any free market, price alone is not enough to attract customers, particularly the youth. Competition among matatu owners is high. They need to ensure their minibuses are top notch, spending up to $70,000 for the over-the-top amenities alone.
Matatus offer high speed internet connections and comfortable seats. (Seatbelts are now required by law.) Many have flat screen TVs, both inside and out, that continually play movies, music videos and sporting events. Some provide power sockets and USB outlets at every seat. iPads are available upon request. There are even Matatus with disco balls, fish aquariums and airline-type TVs on the back of every seat.
For longer trips outside the city, matatu owners have introduced hostesses, who offer services like those you might expect on a plane or train, carrying luggage or lounge waitressing.
Matatu culture is loved and loathed in equal measure.
Some prefer the less pimped up versions, hoping to avoid the mayhem of loud music and questionable driving, but the urban youth continue to view them as part of their African identity.