Loud music, graffiti: The evolution of matatu culture Kenyans love and hate in equal measure

Loud music, graffiti: The evolution of matatu culture Kenyans love and hate in equal measure

Matatus in Nairobi Central Business District. Photo/Courtesy.

By Therenja Ann Wambui

The name matatu originated from the word ‘three’ when the service appeared, a trip was equivalent to three 10 cent coins. 

The use of matatus gained popularity in the 1950s due to lack of transport in areas around Eastlands as a result of colonial restrictions. After independence, there was growth, especially in Nairobi. 

With this has come an evolution in appearance and operation of matatus. 

Majorly the  matatus, sometimes referred to as ‘ Manyangas’ or ‘Nganyas’ exhibit colourful artwork on the interior and exterior announcing their precense with thunderous music. 

This ‘Nganyas’ undergo a lot of work for it to come to existence. 

It is bought as a bare structure and the chasis (outer framework) is taken to the garage then the shell is designed according to the customer’s specifications. 

Afterwardsseats and covers are fitted in. 

Later on, there is wiring of the music system for quality sound. Screens and CCTV cameras are also installed and lights in and out side the matatu put that make it very colourful at night. 

Lastly, it is enhanced, or ‘pimped’ as the process is usually called either with computer generated stickers or hands on airbrush paintings featuring  famous people, movies, famous slogans and football teams.  

After all the work, they exhibit great artistry and talent and are ready to start operations. 

This process costs anywhere from Ksh. 2 to 6.5 million. 

There is usually chanting among owners to welcome the matatu when it arrives from the garage, with some hanging on the door and climbing on top of the vehicle.

There are over 100,000 matatus operating in Nairobi for 133 routes with 2,481 stops.

There are some ‘nganyas’ that are well known for their creative graffiti , sound systems and services such as Dethrone, B613, Code, Dynasty, Subzero, night nurse, Boom box, Batman, Ambush,Matrix Damager and scar.  

According to James Chege, a matatu driver, he says that he earns about Ksh. 6,000 to 10,000 daily and Ksh. 57,000 monthly. 

It’s a lucrative business but requires investment,” he said.

Female conductors in this business make about 10% and some also drive. 

Sylvia Wangui, a conductor, expressed the challenges that she faces while at work. 

” Some men try to intimidate me because they think that I cannot stand up for myself. Some might refuse to pay fare, others want to touch you inappropriately pretending they are trying to address you. I have learnt to grow a thick skin and I don’t allow them to intimidate me.

Some complain that the volume is too high but  there are a variety of matatus and some are quiet, such passengers should board such because some people board because of the loud music and we also acquire a license. Aside from that, I make a good income on a good day of about Ksh. 6,000 depending on the number of trips.” 

Rachael Njeri, a passenger spoke to Wananchi Reporting about why she doesn’t like the ‘Nganyas’:

“I don’t like the loud music especially after a hectic day, I find it disturbing for children and the elderly as well. The conductors use vulgar language and sometimes force while trying to convince you to go on board.”

“Then there is stuffiness as some windows are intentionally closed with glue, lying about routes and the cost of fare, congestion and carrying excess passangers, sometimes the conductors are drunk or they drink during the journey.”

She continued, “It is like a moving disco, risk of theft, sexual harassment and overspeeding or competing with other matatus on the road for fun.” 

Bethcarlos Mwende explained why she loves boarding the ‘nganyas’

” I am a matatu fanatic and I enjoy the loud music, speed thrills and majorly the artwork inside. They know how to hustle through traffic. I don’t see nganyas as just cars, they are a piece of art to me that express a lot.

He continued, “Kenya is the leading country in matatu culture, there’s a lot of employment created for drivers, conductors and designers.

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