These flashy taxi buses are all over Kenya, and they come with a dark past

Wikipedia Commons
  • Kenyan taxi buses, or “matatus,” are all over Nairobi and outlying cities.
  • They’re privately owned and decorated both inside and out, and their low cost makes them extremely popular for getting around.
  • However, they have carried a reputation for violence and harassment for decades.

All around Kenya, plumes of black smoke get coughed from the tailpipes of colourful matatus, the privately-owned taxi buses that ferry people around the city and suburbs.

For around $US0.20 a ride, passengers can step inside a flashy bus or truck blaring rhythm-heavy music, and cram into a hot, muggy seat surrounded by a dozen other people. On a busy day, someone might be hanging onto the back.

Matatus have spent the better part of the last several decades building up (and then trying to shed) a reputation for violence and harassment of passengers. And today, as Kenya’s government tries to eliminate mutatus in favour of larger, more efficient buses, the old-school transport method is on the verge of extinction.

Here’s what they’re all about.

Kenyan matatus are all owned by one of 600 Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizatios, or SACCOs, the government associations that regulate buses.

Wikimedia Commons

Source: Standard Media

Until 2015, laws strictly prohibited owners from decking out their matatus in flashy paint or bright colours. Then that law was repealed, opening the floodgates for inventive designs.

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Source: Nairobi Today

The newfound freedom has made for eye-popping vehicles that roam through cities and countryside. Most of the vehicles are safe, but it wasn’t always this way.

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Petty crime has been rampant in Kenya since the mid-20th century. Matatus have played host to robberies, violence, and sometimes rape. Drivers weren’t required to have the proper taxi licenses until 1984.

Jerome Delay

Source: “Mutatu”

By the early 2000s, violence had become common as groups fought for control over certain matatu routes. For drivers, greater share of the transit routes meant more money.

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Source: Review of African Political Economy

Within the last several years, Kenya’s government has passed regulations to make matatus safer, including mandating seat belts and devices that limit speed.

Wikipedia Commons

However, due to overwhelming congestion on Kenyan highways, in 2010 officials set in motion sunset laws for matatus. No new vehicles can operate in Nairobi.

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Despite their popularity, the buses will gradually get phased out and replaced by 25-person buses that can reduce the number of cars on the road.

Wikimedia Commons

These larger buses won’t be flashy like the old matatus, and their presence will mean fewer drivers can have opportunities to make a living.

Wikimedia Commons

Those who once used the matatus will either join thousands of other business owners and sell textiles, fruit, or fish; or they will have to ride the new 25-person buses to a job, assuming they are lucky enough to find one.

Wikimedia Commons

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