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.”

102. Matatus, Art on Wheels

A number of internet sites warn tourists against using Nairobi’s matatus, citing their utter disregard for traffic laws, lurking pickpockets and eager conmen.
Other travel guides tout the buses’ quirkiness, with one detailing how to take kids on a tour of Nairobi using matatus as the singular mode of transportation.

I’m not remotely interested in cars of any kinda, but I became fascinated with these mobile works of art, and quickly found myself caught up in the matatu culture.

Source: Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi, pg. 28, 1964 Matatu





Matatus started as rickety, wired-together junkyard vans and pickups with wooden benches meant to accommodate commuters and farm animals. They were merely functional (when they functioned!).
They have evolved into luxury mini buses blaring hip-hop music out into the streets while sporting snappy slogans and images of popular national and international stars. They are now fashionable as well as functional.

Source: efe.com

Each matatu is built entirely from scratch, usually from the stripped chassis of a new truck. Fabricators weld the skeletons and attach the side panels.

Upholsterers often work in tandem with the fabricators.
Wiring for souped-up speakers and high definition TVs is installed.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is airbrushmatatu.jpg
Source: William Oeri (Nairobi), Graffiti artists put finishing touches to a matatu at the Dodi Body Builders garage.


Once the blank canvas is ready, matatu artists embellish the buses with graffiti and bold designs, covering them with images of movie stars, politicians, religious icons, cartoon characters, war heroes and humanitarian champions. A customized paint job can easily cost up to $20,000.

Source: Kenya CitizensTV, YouTube

Sarafina Mumbi is a young Nairobi woman who is using her talents to break into the male dominated graffiti business. She began breaking ground as Kenya’s only female matatu artist in 2013. Despite overt prejudice and ill-treatment, she is now creating some of the most colorful matatus on the road.

Part of her break-through into this multi-million dollar industry was due to a 14-seat bus, commissioned by UNICEF, that she painted for International Women’s Day 2018. The text and images on that bus promoted Women’s Empowerment.

Source: CNN Inside Africa Feature, Matwana Matatu Culture, YouTube (10:22)



The matatu industry is a source of employment for hundreds of thousands of people, mostly youths. It employs garage, car wash and parking lot attendants, welders, system engineers, car dealers, upholsterers, drivers, conductors, mechanics and, of course, graffiti artists. 
Matatus aren’t simply modes of transportation.
These Art Galleries on Wheels are a way of life.

101. Matatus

– “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.

Ocholla, Margareta. Rush Hour in Nairobi, National Museum of Kenya. 1998, Nairobi National Museum.

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.

Source: efe.com




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.

96. Is It Really a Happy Anniversary?

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.

For the occasion, National Geographic created its first-ever “flip” issue – essentially two magazines in one.
With an eye on the today’s world environment, National Geographic examines the trajectory of The Earth’s health 50 years into the future. Half of the magazine’s pages present a hopeful scenario, while half lay out a truly dark destiny.

The editors refer to this issue as “magazines of divergent realities.”

National Geographic magazine cover (back and front), April 2020

One side celebrates the optimistic view of Planet Earth’s future health in which the peoples of the world have harnessed technologies to feed a larger population, provide energy for all, prevent the extinction of plants and animals and start reversing climate change.

Spirit-lifting articles and stunning images tell of the ingenuity and persistence used to find innovative solutions to the planet’s biggest problems.

There are several pages devoted to introducing a generation of conservationists who are set to take up the environmental torch.

Progress seems inevitable.


When the reader turns the magazine over, a Dooms Day view is presented. There are stories of the flooding of Venice and low-lying U.S. coastal cities, massive fires that wipe out entire towns, longer droughts, deadlier heat waves, disappearing species, and scared, strip-mined landscapes.

Source: National Geographic
One of several “super pit cluster” coal mines in Australia. It operates 365 days a year. The owner is considering expansion.
The Golden Crowned Crane is one of the animals we are destine to lose forever.




Humans are changing the planet – and not always for the good.

Questions remain.
How far have we come to date?
How far can we go?
Is it already too late?

So, is it really a happy anniversary?

62. Wangari Maathai, Mother of Trees

Wangarĩ Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011) was a renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist. She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It was awarded for her contribution in the field of sustainable development, democracy and peace.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee wrote, “Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally.”

More than most others, Maathai recognized the connection between the health of the land and the health of the people.

In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in response to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported the streams were drying up, food supplies were less secure, and firewood for fuel and fencing was becoming more scarce.

GBM encourages women to work together (while receiving a small monetary token for their work) to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater and provide food and firewood.

Maathai’s work in this area eventually earned her the nickname “Mama Mici” or Mother of Trees.

“If you destroy the forest,” Maathai said, “then the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail and you will die of hunger and starvation …. Planting trees breaks the cycle. When we can give ourselves food, firewood, and help to nurture soil for planting and clean water, then we begin to roll poverty back” 

10. It’s Elementary – or is it?

A child’s rhyme helps travelers focus with a greener eye.

The Good Tourism blog has an interesting piece this month on
How Bees, Trees, & Tourism Reduce Human-Wildlife Conflict in Uganda.

I was originally attracted to the article because the title references tourism in Uganda, and is accompanied by an image of a mountain gorilla – both subjects that are pertinent to our African travels.

As I got deeper into the article, I became intrigued with the traditional beehives the villagers were taught to make.

That post piqued my interest, and with a little more research, I found this video.
I can get sidetracked very easily.