A key part of my work on the field involves meetings with a variety of people from consumers and influencers to press professionals and entrepreneurs. There are times when these meetings painfully come to life as, at the agreed date and time, I am reduced to wait the other person, call them to find out whether they are on their way, wait, call, wait, call. One lesson among many others is that time is conceived, named, interpreted differently across cultures and environments in Africa. One time I happened to witness a curious scene in Congo, in a plane ready to take off for a 45-minute trip. As the aircraft was slowly taxiing-out, prompting the flight attendant to repeat the no-use-of-electronics-during-take-off instruction, the passenger next to me makes a phone call: “Hi…yes…I am coming…I am right there…in a few minutes…actually I am just right there, so wait for me“!
Another lesson learnt from crisscrossing the Continent is that lengthy waits or standbies are a common feature of travels. So I learnt how to make the best use of them. They are no longer dead time, but rather opportunities for doing many things.
The most recent wait-call experience sees me in Westlands, the shopping epicentre of Nairobi. As if endlessly waiting would become more bearable, I positioned myself at the precise place where matatu’s finish their journey, spotting them as they enter the street, following them as they approach, then examining each traveller getting off, hoping for good news. The matatus are private-held minibuses that are the most used public transportation in Kenya.
At that big bus stop, waiting turned into a true spectacle: the matatu’s are flamboyantly decorated, they feature portraits of Jesus, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Khadafi, etc. They have powerful sound systems that play loud ragga/dancehall, Congolese rumba, hip hop/R&B. They bear popular slogans and sayings and extracts of the Bible and the Koran. They have grandiose or evocative names such as Amazing Grace, God’s Favour, Alvin, Young Rich And Reckless. In addition to the driver, a matatu is staffed by a conductor. I had the chance to come across various types of conductors, from extravagant showmen to resourceful gentlemen.
This spectacle led me to use matatu’s for a couple of trips around Nairobi: it is quite an adventure!
Here’s the beginning of a guide to navigate the matatu network:
- Matatu’s are the most budget-friendly way to get around. For instance, a 20-minute trip from Westlands to the Central Business District (CBD) costs 20-30 Kenyan Shillings (KES). They go from one hub to another where dozens of matatus line up to shuttle off people to all parts of the city and beyond.They operate on routes – which are known by their numbers – and stop wherever people are on the road or wherever they want to get off.
- Knowing which matatu goes where, what route it is likely to take and how much it will charge may not be easy task for the inexperienced. You have to rely on reliable sources, ask questions again and again, and compare.
- Matatu drivers are rough riders. They know no rules but theirs. So be prepared for a wild journey spiced up with big noise coming from both the sound system and the conductor, contrasting with the stoicism, sympathy and helpfulness of commuters.
- Matatu’s offer a true Nairobi experience – one very few outsiders see, but which opens the doors to some of the intricacies of the real urban life in Kenya.