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Hidden $ Centz Rolling the Wheels of Nairobi Matatu1 Mbugua wa-Mungai‚ ;  ; A hot October afternoon. I am standing at the Tusker lay-by right in the heart of the Central Business District. A sea of humanity crushes into me from all directions. It is approaching the afternoon rush hour, and from the build-up of human activity spurred on by the sight of heavy rain clouds drifting towards the city, I can see that I am going to have a    " #   the route numbers displayed on matatu windshields. Presently I give up, my attention attracted by the antics of a conductor whose vehicle has just stopped, with a dramatic screech, literally half a foot from my toes. The legend ‘Hidden $ Centz’ is painted in bold green letters across the vehicle’s Q “Beba! Beba!! Gari wazi kama kanisa!” Shouting in Kiswahili, the lanky uniformed youth is exhorting commuters to climb aboard his vehicle, which, as he dutifully misinforms us, “is as vacant as a church!” This lighthearted derision for the church is not taken seriously, as is witnessed by the commuters who scramble to hop onto the already-moving minibus from whose sound system thuds some rather loud music. So far as I can tell, the Transport Minister’s Legal Notice2 outlawing such practices does not seem to have worked too well; some matatu do not even sport the mandatory yellow band! As I wait for my matatu, I muse at the ways of matatu folk, their relationships with the city road and ‘us’, passengers. Like the popular Tusker beer brand after which this lay-by is named, these vehicles and the road bring people together in interesting ways. Z       Q   ‘‰‰‰‘‰‰]€& * ? countable noun and the paper avoids use of the commonly used term ‘matatus’ for the plural form. 2 This refers to the Kenya Gazette Legal Notice n° 161 of 3 October 2003, that instituted changes in the public transport. Among matatu workers, the new regulations are often referred to as ‘Michuki’s laws’, after the Minister for Transport who initiated these changes. 352 NAIROBI TODAY As the above sketch shows, the (his) story of Nairobi cannot be told without narrating the workings of the transport sector that is dominated by matatu. There has been no government-owned public transport since the Nyayo Bus Company collapsed in the early 1990s after only a few years of operation. This has led to a phenomenon where a public service is offered solely by private investors, with the government historically playing the role of ineffective regulator. All public service routes, for which numbers have been assigned, begin in the city’s Central Business District (CBD) and fan outwards to the numerous residential neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Nairobi. Although buses also ply these routes, historically matatu are the predominant mode of transport, partly because of passenger preferences and lesser operational costs. There is strictly no standard shape or size for a matatu and a proposal by local vehicle manufacturers for a standardised safe model were ignored—in Kenya’s rural areas, pick-up trucks without seats have often played the role of public service vehicles. Additionally, some vehicles operate way beyond the limits of their mechanical life cycles and are only kept going by owners’ sheer ingenuity at innovating ways of holding together parts that are literally falling apart. This phenomenon, alongside the massive importation of used  Š ~   €* the linguistic economy of motoring in Kenya. In Nairobi, however, matatu vehicles are either previously 18-seater refurbished vans or 25-seater locally assembled mini-buses.•                   with passengers, with the result that the interior of the matatu often became conducive for pick-pocketing and bodily violations, especially of female commuters. This might explain why the tout cited in the introduction above metaphorises a matatu €  *¢     is endlessly accommodative. Previously, the matatu   sound-systems, earning themselves the appellation ‘discos on wheels’,3 but some of these features have been changed by the introduction of strict operating regulations. According to the Economic Survey 2005, there were 36,757 licensed matatu countrywide, which was 500 more than the number licensed the previous year.4 These ubiquitous, brightly decorated matatu are constantly invoked as a metaphor for the vagaries of contemporary urban existence. ‘Chaos’, ‘lunacy’, and ‘uncultured’ are some euphemisms commonly used to label the aggressive, masculine subculture of matatu workers. However, such tags—betraying an obvious high/low perception of social groups—often mask the real dynamics of matatu work and erroneously seek to portray it in class terms. 3 The...


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