Matatus

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London has its distinctive red, double decker RouteMaster buses; Manzini has white Toyota kombis with bizarre names; Nairobi has multi-coloured buses extravagantly decorated with popular film and rock stars. Some look like regular luxury coaches, but others have been built from the ground up, using purloined Isuzu truck engines, with a more customised appearance and a sound system to match.

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The traffic in Nairobi is already grid-locked during the rush hours. It is going to get worse as the number of vehicles on the city’s roads doubles every six years. Early on Friday morning, it took us over two hours to drive 30 km.

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This past week, I have been learning more about organising a Sexual and Gender Based Violence Service at Masai Lodge, about 25 km outside Nairobi. The highlight of the workshop was a trip to the Medecins Sans Frontieres programme in the huge Mathare slum, on the eastern outskirts of the capital. Half a million people live in this slum. It extends north, forming a border with the fancy suburb of Muthaiga. Last year, the MSF clinic helped more than 2,500 people who had been raped or sexually assaulted. We don’t call them “victims”; they are “survivors”.

View of Mathare
View of Mathare towards Muthaiga

Wearing our distinctive MSF tee shirts, we walked along the main road bordering Mathare zones 2 and 3. Alphonse, an MSF community worker who grew up in zone 3 of the slum, told me I could take photographs if I asked permission. I took these photographs of matatus before it was pointed out to me that I couldn’t get permission from a moving target.

Kanye West, Michael Jordan and James Bond (Daniel Craig version) are popular subjects for Matatu art. Some are decked with under-chassis blue lighting and light-emitting diodes. I was reliably informed that public transport in Nairobi had been privatised, but these matatus act more like privateers.They are licensed to travel between two destinations, but there are no price controls. Indeed, when it rains, the ticket prices double. The city has unsuccessfully tried to regulate the decoration of matatus, the volume of music being played, and even limiting how garrish the conductors’ shirts can be.

You don't have to be crazy to drive in this city - but it helps
You don’t have to be crazy to drive in this city – but it helps

My favourite matatu is called Fergie, after the former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Instead of it being painted scarlet to match Manchester United shirts, the matatu is more burgundy in colour, matching Sir Alex’s nose. On the back of the matatu is an image of Fergie tapping at his wristwatch under the heading “Fergie Time”.

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By Dr Alfred Prunesquallor

Maverick doctor with 40 years experience, I reduced my NHS commitment in 2013. I am now enjoying being free lance, working where I am needed overseas. Now I am working in the UK helping with the current coronavirus pandemic.

2 comments

  1. At 30km in 2 hours it is faster than London which I believe to be about 11 miles an hour! and about the same in Bristol… can take me 25 minutes to get to the centre in the car, which is about 3.5 miles!!
    No joke. Cycling much faster down the hill of the Cycling City! But walked up St Michaels Hill pushing the bike and getting bits of conversation form passers by.

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