A “Matatu” experience

My ride aboard a Matatu, Kenya’s famed mode of public transport, was my absolute best experience in the 2 weeks I spent in Nairobi – vibrant, dynamic and full of fascinating surprises.

Matatu’s are minibuses used for public transport. In East Africa, the minibuses were given the name Matatu from a Swahili name, short for mapeni matatu (thirty cents) – a flat fare that was charged in the early 1960s.

When I visit a city for the first time I always seek out exciting and different tours that may be on offer. I rather enjoy a food tour as it allows me to learn about the city while at the same time satisfying the foodie in me through sampling local cuisine.

On my arrival in Nairobi I searched the internet for food tours but unfortunately could not find one. I then recalled Airbnb having launched their AirbnbExperiences in late 2016, with Nairobi being one of the featured cities. Having caught glimpses of Matatu’s and being rather intrigued by the garish decorations and blaring music I decided to book the “Eclectic Public Transportation” experience.

On the morning of the tour I was picked up from my hotel by Douglas – born and raised in Nairobi, and a “Matatu expert”. The first stop of the “experience” was a visit to a workshop in the industrial area of Nairobi. En-route to the workshop, stuck in Nairobi traffic (the norm), Douglas gave me a brief overview of the day ahead and we chatted about the South African minibus taxis whom I had always thought had to be the craziest, until my visit to Nairobi.

On arrival at the workshop I was in awe – a Matatu is actually born in the workshop! A stripped chassis is delivered to the workshop and then based on the specifications of the customer, the fabricators weld the skeletons and attach the panels. The seating and all other fittings are manufactured in the workshop. Most of the customization is done by hand. This is certainly a unique industry to Kenya and allows for the creation of numerous jobs.

Stripped chassis before the fabrication commences
Panels being attached to the frame of the Matatu

Once the body of the Matatu is ready and has passed the necessary safety tests, the “pimping” of the vehicle commences. The art on the body of the Matatu’s ranges from pop culture, music icons and contemporary topics. The more colourful the van, the more famous it will be and thus more likely to attract a greater number of passengers.

Custom-made sound systems are fitted under the seats, with plasma screens at the front for all to enjoy high definition music videos. At night, LED lights are switched on, turning the van into a sort of mobile club. If there is good music in a Matatu, you can often see people singing and dancing in their seats.



Hand painted artwork

In a bid to outdo competition, some Matatu’s are fitted with Wi-Fi connectivity and satellite TV to lure passengers. They are popular especially with the hip and urban Kenyan youth who own smartphones and are in constant contact with their peers on social networks.

After the workshop visit it was time for my thrilling roller coaster experience! The ride in the Matatu along with local Kenyans was crazy but also interesting. I got to witness people entering and exiting, the tout (conductor) yelling to attract clients and also directing traffic at times. I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and sounds of Nairobi aboard this “cultural phenomenon”.

The ride was a bouncy one (the drivers manner of driving and the base of the music) and fast too. Each driver is paid by the owner of the vehicle at a rate based on the number of trips made. If ever there is a competition for driving on the curb or on the wrong side of traffic, Kenyan Matatu drivers would win (they certainly beat the taxi drivers in Johannesburg).

The interior of the Matatu I rode in

The final stop of the day was lunch which was advertised as “Simple local Kenyan cuisine” and I was looking forward to sampling some. Douglas, though decided to amend this (and find somewhere quieter after the craziness from the morning) and we had lunch at Java Coffee House – a chain of coffee houses in Nairobi which serves “export-quality” Kenyan coffee.

To anyone visiting Nairobi I would recommend this “immersive travel experience” (how Airbnb labels these tours) as it is honestly was like being in a cultural museum on wheels.


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