- Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi by Kenda Mutongi
It was 2002, and about twenty of us were careening through the streets of Mombasa, Kenya, in a van with a sliding door. The stereo was thumping with the sounds of Blu Cantrell’s song “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” Packed together on the vinyl seats were women carrying vegetables, schoolchildren in uniforms, mothers with their babies held tightly to their chests, and office workers in suits. As we approached a stop, the conductor slid the door open and swung his body out, shouting the destination, collecting fares, and dispensing change as people ducked, crouched, and squeezed in and out. When the van was full, the conductor smacked the roof of the vehicle with an open palm, and we were off again, until suddenly, we smashed into a massive pothole in the road, and the sliding door broke off. As the conductor tried to reaffix the door, impatient passengers made a show of sighing and looking at their watches. Finally, the conductor gave up and climbed aboard, and we continued on our way without the door, the wind whipping in our ears and the bass vibrating our bodies.
This was the matatu, the mass public transportation system created and operated by a vast network of Kenyan city dwellers, including entrepreneurs, drivers, mechanics, investors, and decorative artists. Kenda Mutongi has written an excellent new book, combining archival work and ethnography, to reveal the history of this industry, and, more broadly, of urban Africa. The story of the matatu is a story about Nairobi’s place in a global economy. It is a story about Kenya’s electoral politics and the relationship between the city and the postcolonial nation-state. And it is a history of youth style and consumerism. It takes us to mechanics’ garages, the schools that have sprung up to train matatu artists, the squatter settlements, the parking lots where rival gangs and youth groups vie for control, the downtown offices [End Page 113] where people work, and the squatter settlements to which they return at the end of the day.
Matatus began appearing in Nairobi in the 1960s, following Kenya’s attainment of national independence. Their emergence parallels the transition of Nairobi from a city designed to serve white settlers and colonizers to a metropolis of more than three million people. As in other segregated cities built in the colonial era, African men were expected to come into downtown Nairobi as temporary laborers, and were expected to leave at the end of the day or the end of their work contracts. Transportation networks of the colonial era were not built with Africans in mind. Responding to this lack of options, the first matatu operators began transporting Africans in Nairobi in the 1960s. Originally fashioned out of old vans, matatus quickly became indispensable, and they remain so.
Perhaps because matatus became ubiquitous in the city—according to Mutongi, at least 60 percent of Nairobi’s population uses them—they have repeatedly staged intense political contestation. Politicians have alternated between trying to undercut, profit from, or harness their social influence. Drivers have defended their industry with the rhetoric of development and patriotism, even as they have outcompeted transportation unions and government attempts to build public bus and taxi services. By the early 2000s, Mungiki, the gang that assembled following the land dispossession of rural Kikuyu in the 1990s, was extorting money from the matatu industry to finance its activities and spread its power into local squatter settlements.
Matatus also staged new forms of pleasure and emotional experience. After the implementation of structural-adjustment policies in Kenya, when some restrictions on cultural imports were lifted, drivers refashioned matatus into mobile discos, which blasted hip-hop from retrofitted speakers. Artists created a niche market for matatu painters, and art schools began training matatu artists. Students began seeing their ride to school not simply as a means of transport, but as a mode of self-fashioning, a way to access the latest...