The Mombasa Matatu: A “How To” Guide from a Daily Commuter
It’s 6:45 am, Lil Wayne is blasting in my ears and Tupac is staring me in the face. Welcome to my daily commute.
Like most Mombasans, I travel around the island by matatu. These fourteen passenger vans function as the local transit system but experience more like party buses. They’re the most affordable way to get around and while they are also prevalent in other cities like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (known as the dala dala in Tanzania), Mombasa has its own special breed.
Here, just standing on the side of the road can be a bit overwhelming. Matatus fly past in a rainbow of colors (fuchsia, orange sherbert, lime green). Men shout. Goats run for their lives. If this scene isn’t distracting enough, the matatus’ flashing LED lights and supersized decals with phrases like “Bend Over” and “Sugarbabe” may catch your eye.
A Mombasan matatu assumes the personality of its owner. He or she decorates, or “tricks out,” the vehicle from the inside out in regalia of his or her liking. While each is unique, there are a few common themes: athletic teams (like the English Premier team Arsenal or the Georgetown Hoyas—I still can’t figure out why), religion (both Christianity and Islam have a large following here so you may see “Come Lord Jesus” or “Allah Barik”), and musical genres (Bob Marley and Reggae or Young Weezy and Hip-Hop). Here are some quick pointers about how to get around on a matatu.
Step one: Finding the right bus
My first piece of advice: don’t pay much attention to the theme. There’s no rhyme or reason. Instead, know where you’re going and listen up. Matatu maps don’t exist (and they definitely won’t be posted at your local bus stop) so your best bet is to listen to the conducta—he’s the guy in red shouting really loudly (the equivalent of a ticket collector). If you want to go to the Central Post Office, for example, listen for “posta” which sounds more like “postapostaposta.” You’ll also hear other main destinations like “fedydedyfedy” (ferry), and doxxxdoxxxdoxxx, (docks or the Kenyan Port Authority). It takes some time to decipher these sounds, but it’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.
Step two: The ride
When you’re ready to embark on your journey, leave behind all attachments to safety, standardization, and personal space. The vehicle will start to move before your last leg is off the ground, you will be smashed against strangers, and the conducta may ask for your hand in marriage.
During the daily “jam” (rush hour traffic), the inside of a matatu becomes its own form of jam as many more than 14 passengers pile into (or are hanging out of) the vehicle. The most I’ve counted was around twenty-two full sized people (note: this is an estimate based on visible limbs). When I entered the matatu, the conducta urged the three plump men seated in the front row to move over kidogo, or just a little bit, so I could squeeze in. That was fun.
Once you’ve made it in (and are hopefully sitting next to a functioning window), enjoy the ambiance. Every matatu ride is a grab bag, you never know exactly what it’s like inside and what may transpire during the course of your route. Look around at the posters of Alicia Keys, Chris Brown, and Avril Lavigne. Check out the degloo mantras like “If u lonely n need a woman, prez here —> ,” “If the music is 2 loud then UR 2 old,” and “Why worry? Telephone God in prayer.” Bounce to the beats of genge or kapuka (Kenyan rap music), Jamaican reggae, or some good old American classics like Ooosha (Usher) and Maria Cudi (Mariah Carey).
Don’t panic when the driver cruises into the lane of oncoming traffic or weaves around telephone poles on the dirt shoulder while playing a motorized leapfrog with other matatus. In Kenya, a two-way road easily becomes three and maybe even four lanes during rush hour. Also, be sure to have exact change. If not, you’re likely to fall prey to the “mzungu rate” in which foreigners unfamiliar to the fare are overcharged. It’s also important to keep moving. People are always hopping in and out and passengers are expected to keep moving toward the back so new passengers can make it in easily. Over the course of a ride, I often find myself migrating towards the rear in three rounds of matatu musical chairs.
Step three: Stop! How do I get off this thing?
Okay, it’s time to get off. The conducta may have shouted the name of the stop, but most likely you’ve looked at the window and realized you’ve arrived. How to signal that you’re ready to get out? Pull the cord? Press the button? Nope, just knock. Yup, two straightforward taps of the knuckles on the ceiling sends a reverberating sound which signals that someone wants to get out. Now to exit…start moving towards the door when you’re approaching your destination. The conducta will open the door and you’ll wait for the vehicle to stop. Most likely, it will not come to a full halt, rather you’ll be expected to hop out sky-diving style when it’s still rolling. Good luck and congrats, you’ve made it!
Culture in a Commute
My time in the matatu has taught me a great deal about what life is like on the coast. I’ve bonded with drivers, commiserated with passengers in a fender bender, been over charged, and given rides for free. I’ve seen and learned a lot. The Mombasan matatu serves as a cultural barometer of sorts. The music, images, and phrases from Western popular culture provide an insight to how the West is viewed and interpreted here in Kenya. I’ve also learned more about American rap artists in my daily commute in Kenya than I have in a lifetime back home. Thanks to this experience, I’m now well acquainted with the music of Lil Jon (and his Crunk Juice) and can match a face to the song. Off to ride a matatu!