104. Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi

Source: Amazon.com

Kenda Mutongi, a professor of history at MIT, writes about the development of the matatu bus business amid the backdrop of a developing country with all the inevitable problems associated with a neophyte nation.

She tells of the ingenuity and tenacity of Nairobi’s mwanainchi (true citizens) despite the racist policies, economic oppression, and political corruption that permeated their world.

Though I lack even the tiniest bit of knowledge concerning urban development, Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi offered me a way to navigate the socioeconomic and political themes that play out in a newly developing, fast growing city.

I’m captivated by today’s matatu culture. Perhaps that’s why Professor Mutongi’s book, which might otherwise have been a long, laborious educational workshop was, for me, a fascinating adventure.
The professor describes how Nairobi’s rapid growth ran in parallel with the evolution of the matatu transport business, as she chronicles both events from the time Britain relinquished colonial control, on into the twenty-first century. The two processes intertwine so completely that her claim that the success of one could not have happened without the success of the other, appears indisputable.

Matatu: A History doesn’t read like a dry, slow-moving textbook, but rather an engrossing tale of exploding urbanization, poverty, racism, bribery and exploitation, along with entrepreneurship, upward mobility, artistic expression, pop culture and a city’s sputtering lurch toward democracy.
It’s all there for the reader to absorb.


Need something lighter?
Try The Matatu by Eric Walters.

Source: Amazon.com, Children’s Africana Book Award

From the Forward by Ruth Kaytha, Director of The Creation of Hope

“Every culture has its own folktales and stories.
Among the Kamba of Kikima, Kenya there is a story told about animals and matatus. Eric Walters and I were driving around when I told him a brief version of the story about the goat, the sheep and the dog. He decided to expand it and create a picturebook.
We believe Kamba stories should be told by members of our tribe. In June of 2009, Eric was made a Kamba elder. It is only fitting that Eric has expanded and retold this Kamba story, as we consider him one of our own.”