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Matatus: A Cultural Transit System

For the past four years I’ve become accustomed to rely heavily on a system of buses known as the Hamilton Street Railroad (HSR). It’s a semi-efficient and fairly dependable public transit network (on good days) that connects the downtown core to the city’s peripheral areas, such as the neighbourhoods surrounding McMaster University. As a student without a car, this system serves an essential role in my everyday life, but I can’t help but notice that it lacks something. And it is not just a problem of Hamilton; I’ve found nearly all city transit systems I’ve used in North America lack this as well. What they lack is something I’ve only experienced while in the heart of a traffic jam in downtown Nairobi, Kenya…

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The Central Business District of Kenya (Image Source: VegNews)

Nairobi is the urban center of Kenya. It exists as a thriving, entrepreneurial and chaotic urban ecosystem with hundreds of neighbourhoods. We don’t have an accurate number of how many people live in it today, but the last official census in 2009 estimated it at around 3.14 million. As the city is set up in districts, many people live at a distance from where they work. Additionally, many people do not own a car, and this has led to a huge reliance on public transit for the vast majority of residents. 

Matatus: A Cultural Transit System

On my way downtown in Central Nairobi via public transit.

There are two primary ways of getting around in Nairobi. The first is the ‘boda-boda’, meaning motorcycle taxi. This is not a translation, but rather an invented term deriving from a time when motorcyclists would ferry people from border to border within the no-man’s land between East African countries. Hence, ‘border-border’ eventually became ‘boda-boda’. It is by far the most efficient way of getting around, as motorcycles are able to weave through traffic gridlock, but is also often the most expensive. The second is the ‘matatu’, meaning a minibus or coach-bus used for public transit. The word derives from the Kiswahili word for “threes”, since the fare was usually about three ten coins (30 cents), and for some matatus, this is still the case. The matatu is the fiscally preferred choice for many residents, and the majority of buses run to and from the central business district located in the heart of the city. When I lived in Nairobi last summer, I took my fair share of matatu rides, and slowly I became aware of a special difference between matatus and their transit counterparts in Canada or the United States. I’m not talking about the space, efficiency, bus drivers, or cost (though these too are relevant differences). I’m talking about art and culture.

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Image Source: CNN

Matatus are moving canvases, both in the visual and auditory sense. Upon purchase, many matatu drivers spend hours and hours painting and designing the exterior and interior, crafting a particular identity into their vehicles. Since regulations pertaining to artwork are not extensive nor extensively policed, many drivers assume the liberty of painting whatever they like. As result, there are Versace matatus, Jesus matatus, Bob Marley matatus, 90s rap matatus, and self-proclaimed DJ mixer matatus. I even remember having to rub my eyes in disbelief after watching a ‘Toronto Blue Jays’ matatu roll right in front of me (alas, I did not have a camera with me at the time). Somehow the Jays had mustered enough support in Kenya to end up on the roads of Nairobi. 

Matatus: A Cultural Transit System

A Versace themed Matatu (2015) (Image Source: Jociku)

When you go inside a matatu, part of the fun is that you never entirely know what to expect. Sometimes, you enter a business-like scene with just a couple of friendly posters on the ceiling. Other times you enter a dimly lit, loud, night-club type bus with glow in the dark posters of Jay-Z and a tv playing music videos at the front. What’s interesting is that you never really get to choose which matatu you take (you get on the first one that arrives), so you’ll see people dressed to the nines on their way to work in both settings.

Matatus: A Cultural Transit System

This matatu I took on my way home featured a hanging television playing a continuous stream of the latest music videos.

As a stayed in the city of Nairobi for a longer period of time, I began to notice how matatus reflected certain cultural icons and artefacts that were important in Kenyan society. Hip hop, dancehall, and reggae music for example are predominant themes in many matatus, and are also among the most popular styles of music in Nairobi right now. When the Black Panther movie came out, Black Panther matatus began to take the streets. As political parties campaigned, some (likely endorsed) matatus reflected their messages and ideas. 

Matatus: A Cultural Transit System

A Black Panther themed matatu designed in 2018 (Image Source: YouthVillage)

Since becoming more interested in urban planning, I’ve come to recognize just how beautiful and unique of a public transit system this is. It is a system of buses that for the past 50 years has manifested and reflected the shifting cultures and ideologies of Nairobi and the world. Unrestrained for the most part by policies, the fusion of art, music, and transit has created a fleet of vehicles that the city of Hamilton could not dream of.

Now, I want to make clear that I am not blindly idolizing the Nairobi bus system. There are a number of systemic problems, namely traffic congestion, theft, crime, and harassment, of which the matatu has a large role in. The city of Nairobi has room for improvement in terms of making their transit system more efficient and safer for riders. Not to mention, unrestrained bombardment of music and lights can take its toll on riders long term. What I’m attempting to do is to recognize a component of Nairobi transit that many Canadian cities are missing – the convergence of culture and public transit. Instead of void spaces that people wait to get to work or home, I imagine a possibility where transit can reflect the cultural metamorphosis of a city and its people.

Matatus: A Cultural Transit System

Image Source: Medium

To a certain extent, some transit systems have already attempted this. The Toronto Transit Commission has created subway stations with beautiful displays of artwork showcasing the human condition (Union Station) and drawings posted on the interior of the train cars. The dimly lit halls of the Toronto underground are also the stage of musical performers which fill the chambers with violin concertos, pop tunes, and jazz saxophone solos. But there is a lot of potential left to fill. 

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Museum Station in Toronto showcases an array of historical columns (Image Source: BlogTO)

In Hamilton, we have a good bus system. It gets me from point A and point B and often does so efficiently. But in the time I sit on the bus, trying to not to make eye contact with other passengers, I do not feel connected to my city and its culture. In this way, I believe the matatu, despite its challenges, has a lot to offer the world. 

Author

Matatus: A Cultural Transit System
Ross is a graduate student at Ryerson University studying urban planning.