Are you tired of taking the same old bus day after day? Does your daily commute lack excitement? Are you living in Nairobi and willing to cram yourself with 15 others into a tiny minivan, haggle for a fair price and hold your breath as your vehicle careens through the streets and drives on sidewalks, just to get into town?

Then this culture guide is for you! Tips and tricks for riding in a matatu.

A standard Nairobi matatu.  The dude hanging out the window is called a "Taut."

A standard Nairobi matatu. The dude hanging out the window is called a "Taut."

Tip #1: Know your vehicle

Matatus are minivans that run along pre-determined routes. They are essentially rusty heaps of metal held together by a few bolts and an engine. That’s why I think of matatus as hybrids. They are powered partly by gas and partly by the grace of God.

The passenger limit for matatus used to be “as many as you can fit in the vehicle,” but in 2004 a law was passed limiting the number to 15 (including the crew). Even so, it’s not like you’ve got a lot of room. You still need to squeeze yourself up against the window and climb over people to get in and out!


Tip #2: Know your crew

Another crafty Taut.  This one wanted me to pay him for taking his picture.  Um, no...

Another crafty Taut. This one wanted me to pay him for taking his picture. Um, no...

Each matatu “crew” consists of a driver and a “taut” (ta-oo-t), who is responsible for collecting fares and doing everything within his power to get people on his matatu. This includes shouting out the route number, banging his hand against the vehicle and getting into heated arguments with other tauts about which matatu was first.

They make more money during the day if they take as many trips along their route as possible. So drivers will careen down sidewalks, blare their horn and race through road-side gas stations to cut in front of a car or two.

Tauts will yell at you to hurry if you’re taking too long to get off (which is almost always the case), but don’t worry. The worst thing that can happen is that the laughs and jeers of the other passengers will play on your already existing insecurities and contribute to a deepening frustration in your inability to interact well with the culture.

So, yeah! Nothing to worry about.

Pastor Fred and I in a matatu.  I'm smiling because I didn't get ripped off this time!

Pastor Fred and I in a matatu. I'm smiling because I didn't get ripped off this time!

Tip #3: Know your price

If you are an mzungu (white person) like me, you can feel fairly confident that matatu tauts will try to rip you off from time to time. Even if they are shouting out “Mbau mbau!” (20 shillings) before you get on, they may still look at you with a gaze of compassionate sincerity and say… “it’s 50 shillings.”

In situations like those, it’s good to know a little basic Swahili.

“We. Unafikiri mimi ni mzungu mjinga? Ulisema mbau! Silipi hamsini.” Hey. Do you think I’m a stupid white person? You said 20 shillings! I’m not paying 50.

That usually works. : )

Tip #4: Know your style.

On the congested streets of Nairobi, a successful matatu HAS to stand out...

On the congested streets of Nairobi, a successful matatu HAS to stand out...

In an attempt to lure passengers to their matatu, some crews will deck out their vehicle with slogans, pictures and lights. You really never know what the theme of your next matatu is going to be.

Most of the decorations are an attempt to connect with many Kenyans’ love of Western culture, but sometimes the phrases and images get a little bit strange. I saw one the other day that said “Ultimate Hustler” next to a huge picture of Mother Theresa. Hmmm…

Matatus also have a wide range of music styles booming from their speakers (Nigerian reggae, 80’s pop hits and Kenyan hip-hop are a few current favorites). Eventually you’re bound to find something you enjoy.

One piece of advice, though. If you have a choice of where to sit, don’t sit directly under a speaker. I promise that you’ll regret it. Most “serious” matatus play their music so loud it shatters eardrums for 10 miles around. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s closer to 5 miles…

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So there you have it. If you’re ever in Nairobi and looking for a loud, uncomfortable, dangerous and inexplicably fun way to get around (other than riding an exploding camel), you now know what to do… Take a matatu!

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Amy Osgood said... 

    Reply

    June 26th, 2009 at 9:26 am  

    Very impressive. You know, I never took you for a stupid white person. :) I’m loving your website and your (and the others) adventures!

  2. joanna said... 

    Reply

    June 26th, 2009 at 9:35 am  

    Your next post needs to be on how to get around on an exploding camel! Complete with pictures.

    Sounds like just getting across town is an adventure!

  3. Brad Ruggles said... 

    Reply

    June 26th, 2009 at 10:21 am  

    Unafikiri mimi ni mzungu mjinga? Ulisema mbau! Silipi hamsini…what a great phrase to know in Swahili. lol

    I can only imagine the sights, sounds and smells you would experience trying to ride a Matatus in the city. What an experience!

    Thanks for another great post.

  4. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    June 26th, 2009 at 10:49 am  

    So funny. Today, just a few hours after posting that article, Pastor Fred and I were returning to Kibera when our matatu’s door broke AND it got a flat tire.

    Apparently the grace of God had left that particular vehicle… :)

  5. Denise said... 

    Reply

    June 26th, 2009 at 1:07 pm  

    Brings back fond memories of riding in the buses and “rickshaws” in India!! YIKES!! Total craziness!!! :)

  6. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    June 26th, 2009 at 2:11 pm  

    Haha – exploding camels! Wear a wet suit!

    So I was intrigued enough by the HomeBoyz decal on the matatu above to look it up. Turns out they are a DJ team that exists to “keep the Krowds Movin!” Here is their stated “dream” from their website:

    “America has had its chance, so has Europe and Asia…Africa is the last untapped market and our aim is to ensure that our motherland gets its props.”

    All right then.

  7. Aaron Elliott said... 

    Reply

    June 29th, 2009 at 3:37 pm  

    All right then indeed!

    There is nothing like riding a matatu. After reading this post, I want to come back to Kenya just to ride in one again!

    I also have the strange urge to crank up the stereo on my mini-van, get some rockin decals and a paint job, find me an obnoxious friend (of which I seem to have many), and see if we can make this mutatu think work in the States! We have an untapped market here!!

  8. Rob Yonan said... 

    Reply

    June 30th, 2009 at 10:27 pm  

    If matatus made it to the US I wonder what it would look like? Old school buses retro-fitted?
    I’ll volunteer to drive. Anyone want to be my taut and shake down the passengers?

  9. Gaciru said... 

    Reply

    July 1st, 2009 at 7:53 am  

    HAHAHAHA! being Kenyan and having traveled by God’s grace all my life…this article allows me to enjoy the ride even more….who needs an amusement park when you have the wonderful roads of Nairobi….another name for taut is makanga…and driver is dere….there is a matatu named “destination heaven”…thats how fast and furious they drive…BUT I LOVE IT!

  10. shelli said... 

    Reply

    July 3rd, 2009 at 8:59 am  

    My personal favorite was the matatu I saw last time in Kenya… decked out with huge faces of the following people plastered on the side: Celine Dion, Dr. Dre, and Osama bin Laden. Could you think of 3 more random people to put on the side of a van?

    Rob- they have those in Guatemala. They are affectionately referred to as Chicken Buses… http://www.ixchelschool.com/photos/chickenbus1.htm

  11. kmiani said... 

    Reply

    November 16th, 2009 at 1:28 pm  

    am kenyan… thats for a fact! and the greatest thing we have after corruption, is the matatu… one of our own greatest inventions.
    find me another form of public transport in the world that matches this in terms of hip, hype, style and ‘fear factor’ then you are my hero.

  12. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    February 15th, 2011 at 2:30 am  

    Haha! Picturing the words “Ultimate Hustler” next to a huge picture of Mother Theresa made me laugh so hard, I had to tell my roommate what was so funny!
    Very helpful, I’ll keep it in mind in case I ever get to travel there:)

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