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Unique city matatu culture killed by strict traffic rules

With over 13,000 members, the Facebook page Matatu Culture is a hit with the city’s enthusiasts who are mourning the looming death of public transport hype.

Photos, videos and furious debates uploaded by the hour focusing on which route has the flashiest vehicles dominate the page.

The same happens on Matwana — a You Tube page that has well over one million hits and videos of the mobile works of art that dominate the city’s transport industry.

Broke the record

On Thursday it was about TV screens sizes, and with a 50-inch screen, Mayhem, a 52-seater minibus on route 44 won the contest.

The only other matatu that ever broke the record, according to the debate, was Brown Sugar on route 58 (Buruburu) which had a 52-inch TV. Such are the debates that go the social media platforms.

On the streets, however, the matatu culture is under siege as the Government introduces regulations. 

Although the government insists that the regulations are meant to boost safety, matatu enthusiasts see them as choking creativity in an industry once considered a tourist attraction.

The latest of the rules came up in October last year when Transport Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau banned loud music. 

The matatu crews did not comply but they would switch off the music whenever they approached areas such city centre, Landhies Road, Pangani, some spots along Ngong road and when approaching roundabouts where the police were bound to catch them.

Two years before, the Government had directed that all matatus be registered under saccos. This has given the vehicles a uniform appearance and even those that had some form of creative signage on their bodies have now been restricted to the colours of their saccos.

Mr Johnson Kaloki said the introduction of saccos had been the worst mistake.

“The uniqueness of our public transport is what gave Nairobi its identity. It is one of those things that make one proud to be Nairobian,” he said.

Mr Brian Ogola from Umoja said the Government was targeting only the matatu industry.

“We have taxis, buses and even planes. Tell me of a press conference ever called to introduce new regulations for aeroplanes, which also offer public transport,” he said.

“Painting a yellow line, being forced to join saccos, banning of music and TVs are obnoxious rules that only lead to loss of jobs,” he says.

Today, route 23 to Outering, 35-60 to Umoja, 44 to Githurai and 9 to Eastleigh which used to have the flashiest matatus have all been taken over by saccos.

The only surviving route is 58, where the Senator Mike Sonko is a major investor.

Over 600 matatu saccos have been registered across the country with a majority of them in Nairobi.

In his book Matatu Men, Mbugua wa Mungai describes the matatu culture as the only way one can get to understand the nature of Nairobians.

“The matatu signage is a strategy of self-expression and a symbol of Nairobi’s rebel and chaotic nature. You tell the youth not to smoke bhang, they draw expressions of the drug on the matatu’s bodies and you can’t arrest them for that,” he writes.

The rise of the culture can be traced back to 1973 when founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta issued a decree legalising the private vehicles to offer public transport. With the average fare being three cents at that time, the name matatu (three) was coined.