It’s almost 7pm and I am still anxiously waiting for the Matatu. I left college at 4pm, my mother rings my phone “Where are you?”. I reply am still at the bus stop, there are no Matatus. She quips, “There are no Matatus or are you waiting for a specific one?”. Just as she is asking this I see the smoky yellow green colour of “Shakira” at the corner of my eye cutting the corner to the bus stop. “The Matatu is here, I will be home soon” I curtly respond to my mother as I hang up the phone. Immediately “Shakira” parks I shove my way past many other of my peers to ensure that this time I get a good sit.  Finally am able to relax as “Shakira” jets off, music blaring and music videos popping on the screen.

Matatu Kenia
Every Matatu is an unicum

This was my life back when I was commuting daily to college, like me this was also part of the long history of youths with the Matatu culture of Kenya. Matatu is slang for mini buses that are used as public transportation in Kenya.  In a country where public transportation is the norm for majority of the population, the type of Matatu you ride in is what defines you as a teenager/youth.

Matatu in Nairobi
A Matatu an night in Kenia's capital Nairbo

The Matatus are donned in multi colours with pictures symbolizing political and entertaining messages, from political icons such as Mandela and Wangari Maathai, to popular music artist and football teams such as Arsenal and Manchester United. The Matatu industry is abuzz with creative symbolism. Most youths opt for the flashy high rolling Matatus with catchy graffiti painted on them, music on full blast, with video screens flashing all around you.  For most of the Matatu owners they know having their Matatus pimped is the one way to stay ahead of competition and they will always go out to source for someone to make their Matatu stand out and earn them more clients.

Matatu Kenia
At full speed

However come 2004, a heavy blow was dealt to the Matatu industry when then the transport minister banned Matatu art claiming it to be vulgar and unruly. The youths were in uproar and many formed groups even going as far as creating a petition for Matatu art to be brought back but to no avail.

Matatu Kenia
The more pimped out, the better

Press forward and its 2014 and the current president of Kenya H.E Uhuru Kenyatta, while launching a new cashless payment system for Matatu users says that he has lifted the ban on Matatu art. In his speech he said “I personally do not see anything wrong with the art-work and creativity in Matatu’s and we should surely support our youth to do business with their talents, as long as it does not interfere with driver’s vision and other regulations,” said Kenyatta.

Matatu Kenia
A Matatu skeleton

This was hugely applauded and most of the Matatus are now fully back in gear trying to get their lost art back. 

Matatu Kenia
Welding jobs
Matatu Kenia
A young Matatu artist

See also part 2/2 of our mini-series on Matatu art in Kenia: The life of a Matatu artist.