In Kenya matatu (known as mathree in Sheng) or matatus are privately owned minibuses, although pick-up trucks and estate cars were in the past pressed into service as these Kenyan share taxis. Often decorated, many matatu feature portraits of famous people or slogans and sayings. Likewise, the music they play is also aimed at quickly attracting riders.
Although their origins can be traced back to the 1960s, matatu saw growth in Kenya in the 1980s and 1990s, and by the early 2000s the archetypal form was a (gaily decorated) Japanese microvan. C. 2015, larger, bus-sized vehicles also started to be pressed into service as matatu.
These minibuses ply set routes, run from termini, and are used for both inter- and intra-city travel. In addition to a driver, matatu may be staffed by a conductor,locally known as a makanga or manamba or donda.
As of 1999, they were the only form of public transport available in Nairobi, Kenya, although in 2006 and 2008 this was no longer the case.
Over the years, stiff competition is being experienced from bus-sharing applications such as SWVL.
The name may also be used in parts of Nigeria.
The name derives from a Swahili colloquialism meaning “three”. One explanation is that the wagons originally pressed into service as matatu could be fitted with three rows of bench seats. Other sources maintain that three coins were a typical fare in the 1960s.
There is no universally agreed opinion on an origin for the name, however, with a news source indicating its origin lies in the Kikuyu language.
Matatu Public perception
At times in Kenya, the matatu has been associated with criminality or reckless driving. Writes one academic, “by the end of the 1990s, matatu operators were typically viewed… by Kenyans of all ranks as thugs who exploited and mistreated passengers and participated in gang or mafia-like violence.”
In the early 2000s, struggle over control of matatu routes by informal groups led to violence, and contemporary headlines highlight the fact that matatu were perceived as unsafe. These include a 2002 article titled “riding in Kenya’s taxi vans is [a] death-defying experience” and another from 1999 proclaiming that the “menace of deadly matatus [is] to be curbed.” Mistreatment of passengers has also been reported and includes: “verbal and physical abuse, theft, hijacking, …sexual harassment, beatings, and rape.”
Matatu Kenyan regulation
Explicitly deemed legal in 1973, it wasn’t until 1984 that even the most basic regulatory framework was constructed for matatu, when licensing and inspections were mandated.
Today, the Kenyan regime has been described as having extensive regulatory controls, and in this country a matatu worker can be pulled from the streets simply for sporting too loud a shirt. Some basic safety equipment is required; these minibuses must be fitted with seatbelts and speed governors. It’s unclear, however, to what extent such laws are followed.
Present regulation may not be a sufficient deterrent to prevent small infractions as even decoration may be prohibited. Laws prohibiting flashy paint-jobs and eye-searing colors were removed in 2015, and as of 2016 matatu in Kenya are brightly decorated with some operators paying upwards of US$2,000 for custom, decorative paint.
In the 1990s and 2000s, informal groups emerged managing routes and requiring matatu drivers to pay fees. At times, competition over control of routes precipitated violence. Today, an individual matatu must be associated with one of over 600 independent, government-registered groups known as a SACCOs.
As of late 2010, Kenyan government policy is to phase out minibus matatu in the capital city Nairobi in favour of larger buses seating twenty five or more. Currently no new matatu vehicles can operate in Nairobi, while the existing ones will be allowed to continue serving passengers until they become completely inoperable. It could take ten years or more to ease the congestion caused by more-popular smaller minibuses, however.
Matatu Popular media
In the Netflix series Sense8, Capheus, who lives in Nairobi and is one of the main characters, drives the matatu Van Damn, a tribute to Capheus’ favorite action star, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
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