Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi

Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi

by Kenda Mutongi

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Drive the streets of Nairobi, and you are sure to see many matatus—colorful minibuses that transport huge numbers of people around the city. Once ramshackle affairs held together with duct tape and wire, matatus today are name-brand vehicles maxed out with aftermarket detailing. They can be stately black or extravagantly colored, sporting names, slogans, or entire tableaus, with airbrushed portraits of everyone from Kanye West to Barack Obama. In this richly interdisciplinary book, Kenda Mutongi explores the history of the matatu from the 1960s to the present.
As Mutongi shows, matatus offer a window onto the socioeconomic and political conditions of late-twentieth-century Africa. In their diversity of idiosyncratic designs, they reflect multiple and divergent aspects of Kenyan life—including, for example, rapid urbanization, organized crime, entrepreneurship, social insecurity, the transition to democracy, and popular culture—at once embodying Kenya’s staggering social problems as well as the bright promises of its future. Offering a shining model of interdisciplinary analysis, Mutongi mixes historical, ethnographic, literary, linguistic, and economic approaches to tell the story of the matatu and explore the entrepreneurial aesthetics of the postcolonial world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226471426
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/26/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Kenda Mutongi is professor of history at Williams College and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT. She is the author of Worries of the Heart, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi

By Kenda Mutongi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 Kenda Mutongi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-47139-6


"The Only Way to Get There Was on Foot"

Before the matatu entered the scene in the early 1960s, transportation was woefully inadequate and mobility in Nairobi — at least for Africans — was limited. Most commuters journeyed to work on foot — a fact that did not escape the notice of the notorious writer/journalist (and Hemingway epigone) from North Carolina, Robert Ruark, who traveled extensively in Kenya between 1952 and 1958. Ruark typically wrote with colorful conformity about the poor conditions of Africans, but he seemed unusually surprised by the amount of foot traffic clogging the city. Looking out the window of his comfortable motorcar as he was conveyed from the Eastleigh Airport to the Norfolk Hotel, he marveled at the "ceaseless, relentless stream of plodding people — people coming in from town or going out of town, crowding the sides of the roads on bicycles and afoot, on sway-backed burros and packed like shrimp in buses and lurching lorries. The women ever bear some burden on their backs — whether food, firewood, or a few pitiful belongings; their necks bow and the carrying strap creases their foreheads." For Africans this kind of plodding was the customary means of getting around during most of the colonial period. Before independence the layout of Nairobi had been primarily organized to meet the needs of the white population, with little thought given to the Africans' need for reliable transportation. The disregard was deliberate: the economy of the city had been organized so that the white population would reap most of the benefits, and the well-being of the Africans who worked for them was more or less a matter of indifference. Nor did the colonial officials encourage — or anticipate — any significant independent economic activity among the Africans, and predictably, they gave little consideration to potential African commerce or businesses. Early Nairobi was very much a racialized society: Africans were allowed in the city in order to serve the needs of the whites, and then they were expected to withdraw to their settlements on the city's unseen outskirts. How they got back and forth was their own concern.

None of this is particularly remarkable given the nature of the city's origins, but it is useful to know how Nairobi came to exist if we are to understand its need for the matatu once the country gained its independence. Like so many African cities, it was founded in the context of late nineteenth-century European imperialism. Simply put, Nairobi was a city built to further the demands of Empire, and the racialized organization of mid-twentieth-century Nairobi was very much a consequence of its origins. According to the convoluted logic of the "Scramble for Africa," the British in eastern Africa required a way to get to Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River, so that they could prevent France, Germany, or Belgium from tampering with the lake's water. Defending the lake would protect the water's flow into the Nile, which was considered essential for the security of the Suez Canal, which, in turn, was required to secure the passage to India. And so, presumably, the well-being of the Empire was contingent upon getting troops and supplies to a remote body of water in East Africa, and in order to safeguard the British claim to the region they needed a railway, from Mombasa to Kampala. After all, the Empire was at stake. This, at least, was the argument made in the 1890s by the British East Africa Company to persuade Parliament to finance the rail line (this, and altruistic assurances that it would hasten the end of the slave trade in eastern and central Africa). The reasoning proved convincing: the railway was built, at the colossal cost of five million pounds.

It was a huge investment, given that the land that now forms Kenya did not initially interest the British, despite the pressing concerns about the security of the Empire. And certainly the location of the future capital was not given much thought. Nairobi, or Enkare Nyirobi (which translates from the Masai language as "the place of cool waters"), was simply chosen as a rest stop, a place for the railway workers (most of whom were indentured laborers from India) to recuperate after anexhausting four years and three hundred miles away from the railway's origin in Mombasa. The year was 1899. The work up to that point had been costly: not only was the labor exceptionally punishing, but also one out of every four workers fell prey to lions and other wild animals, and many more were killed by malaria. The mortality rate was even worse for the animals forced into service, as over half the horses and donkeys were killed by tsetse flies. The improvised rest stop at Nairobi therefore provided a much-welcomed break for the railway workers and their overseers.

Still, Nairobi was not necessarily the ideal place for a rest stop. There was no geographical justification for its location. According to Ronald Preston, the railway's chief engineer, the site of the encampment was "a bleak, swampy stretch of soppy landscape, windswept, devoid of human habitation of any sort, the resort of thousands of animals of every species." It seemed to him nothing but a "barren wasteland." Nevertheless, Nairobi's location, halfway between Mombasa and Kampala, was at least logistically justified, since the railway administrators were eager to settle down momentarily to rest and regroup before beginning the next half of the railroad. Over the next few months they began to set up shop: "Roads and bridges were constructed, houses and workshops built, turntables and station quarters erected, a water supply laid on, and a hundred and one other things done which go into the making of a railway township." By the end of 1899, new headquarters had been built, and the "place of cool waters" quickly turned into a settlement. Still, it remained rather unassuming. Visitors to the area in 1903 described Nairobi as a "tin town" consisting of little more than a few corrugated iron houses. When the celebrated doctor/missionary Dr. Albert Cook (later Sir Albert Cook) revisited Nairobi in 1906, he remarked, "Where five years before there had been only long grass, we found the rudiments of a township in the shape of higgledy-piggledy arrangements of tin shanties."

The lackluster tone of these early accounts was relatively short-lived as the virtues of Nairobi's location came to be appreciated by the more forward-looking visitors. Despite the rough-and-ready nature of its beginnings, the location benefited from a moderate climate, tempered by an altitude of 5,300 feet, and its gently irregular and open terrain. Eventually the site's unexpected advantages came to be seen as evidence of exceptional foresight, and it was not long before the Colonial Office began to play up the region's blessings and encourage white settlers to move to the area and establish farms. The arguments offered to potential settlers were not only about the pleasant situation, they were also political and economic, and racial. What could be more beneficial to the Empire than to have the land populated by white farmers employing African laborers to grow raw products for industries in Britain? Besides, the enormous cost of the railway could better be justified if it drew a significant number of white settlers to the area. This was, in fact, just what the Colonial Office wanted; throughout the first decade of the 1900s they made a concerted effort to convince white settlers to immigrate to Kenya.

A few years later the short-lived Empire Marketing Board even fashioned a series of advertisements in the major British newspapers urging people to move to Kenya by heralding it, shamelessly, as a "white man's country." Eager to establish a permanent settler colony, the board members did not hesitate to play up the advantages that Kenya offered. One Empire Marketing Board advertisement in the London Times was particularly effusive: "As one rides or marches through the valleys and across the wide plateaux of these uplands, braced by their delicious air, listening to the music of their streams and feasting their eyes upon their natural wealth and beauty," eventually "a sense of bewilderment overcomes the mind." And just in case the country's beauty might prove a little too bewildering to future colonizers, the advertisements were careful to provide practical assurances that the land offered untapped riches, and that the "raw and naked lazy natives" were amiable, docile, and graciously awaiting the chance to be civilized by hard work on the Europeans' farms. It was even hinted that the future Kenya was a kind of undiscovered biblical paradise. It was, according to an advertisement in the London Daily Telegraph, "the land from which, men say, ages ago King Solomon's ships came sailing with their freight of rare and precious things, 'gold and ivory, apes and peacocks.'" The tracts of available land and the opportunities for wealth were apparently limitless, and now was the time for aspiring colonists to take advantage: "today it is British — and of all the tropical domains of the Empire none is richer in promise than this vast territory twenty times the size of England."

None of this advertising included any reference to the needs or desires of the Africans. The railway line, like the emerging city, was geared toward serving the needs of colonizers and their empire; nonwhites were meant to exist invisibly in the background. This omission presumably facilitated the ads' success. Lured by the promise of privilege, white settlers began to move to the Kenya Highlands at a rapid pace — by 1909 there were 600 white settlers in and around Nairobi. Most of these — including men like Lord Delamere, the Ewarts, the Huxleys, Victor Hays, the Earl of Erroll, the Blixens, and many others — were from vaguely aristocratic backgrounds, though more often than not they were lazy philanderers looking to escape the stuffiness of Europe's upper classes and live freely in the tropics without the constraints of their supposedly reputable backgrounds. The other major group of white settlers consisted of poorer immigrants (mostly Boers) from South Africa, seeking better opportunities after their defeat in the Second Anglo-Boer War. Regardless of origin, white settlers were given exclusive rights to the land between Machakos and Fort Ternan, in what became known as the "white highlands." They made the most of their prerogatives; Nairobi became their little city, their private playground in East Africa, and as rumors of the possibilities spread, others naturally followed. Over the next few decades, white settlement continued to climb steadily so that by the late 1950s there were about 3,000 white settlers in all of Kenya, among a total of 60,000 whites (0.2 percent of the total Kenyan population). Of the total white population about 22,000 lived in and around Nairobi in 1957, a few years before independence.

Still, back in 1899, in the place of cool waters, the Kikuyu and Masai began selling food and other necessities to the railway workers who had settled in the encampment. As their business increased, they began setting up makeshift homesteads on the outskirts of the railway settlement; soon other African groups started to join them — the Kamba, the Swahili, and Somalis from the coast, who were passing through as casual traders along the railway line. As these traders stopped over in Nairobi many of them ended up establishing homes of their own on the outskirts of the town, typically with names that indicated their coastal origins — Pangani, Pumwani, Mji wa Mombasa, Masikini, Kaburini, and Kileleshwa. Then in 1912, the Colonial Office gave land in the area now known as Kibera to some 400 retired Sudanese soldiers who had helped the British in their original conquest of Kenya. Until the 1920s these were the main groups of Africans in and around Nairobi, residing in about 200 self-constructed huts outside the city center. Colonial officials generally left them to themselves, interfering only when tribal chiefs were sent in to collect taxes. Except for the few who worked as housekeepers and cooks for the Europeans, the vast majority of the Africans' economic activity consisted of petty trade.

During the years between World Wars I and II the number of Africans increased steadily. The steady growth was partly a consequence of the number of white settlers moving into central Kenya and commandeering land from the Kikuyu, thus forcing the landless to relocate in Nairobi and look for work. Many of the new immigrants also set up small trades in food and other necessities, while others worked as hawkers, tailors, and masons, or as manual laborers for the railway company and for various government departments. Most of these menial workers earned only enough money for basic sustenance. There was, however, another important group of Africans who settled in Nairobi during the interwar years — the literate Africans employed by the colonial government. Typically they worked in various lower-level posts in the colonial bureaucracy or industries, though, like the menial workers, even these educated clerks were paid only enough to take care of their basic needs. It was rare, if not impossible, to find a job that paid well enough for anyone to acquire sufficient capital to invest in a business that might, someday, reward them with a better than subsistence income.

Most of these migrants were men, though a fair number of women moved to Nairobi and managed to survive by pursuing livelihoods in petty trade, brewing beer, or selling personal services. Many of the women were divorced, widowed, or barren, and Nairobi provided an escape from the derision they often received in their rural communities. Altogether, then, by 1938 there were about 50,000 Africans in Nairobi, living in estates on the eastern outskirts of the city — typically in rudimentary settlements like Shauri Mwoyo, Eastleigh, Kaloleni, Muthurwa, and Makongeni. And, as companies making footwear, textiles, and alcohol began to move into the industrial area in the city's southeast corner after World War II, the number of migrants continued to rise, especially since these industries required both skilled and semiskilled African workers. Over the next twenty years — between the late 1930s and the late 1950s — the African population in and around Nairobi more than doubled (to about 115,000 by 1957). In response, the Nairobi City Council began to build new houses, also in the eastern part of the city (in Ofafa, Starehe, Bahati, Gorofani, and Mbotela), in order to accommodate some of the new workers, particularly those who had managed to bring their families from the rural areas to live with them.

The one other significant group of people in colonial Nairobi was the Indians. About 2,000 Indian ex-railway laborers had settled in the outskirts of early Nairobi after their labor contracts had expired in the early 1900s. Some were artisans who were contracted to build new houses for the growing population of white settlers and administrators.Many of them, however, set up bazaars and dukas (shops) on what are now the Accra and River Roads. There they sold basic supplies to fellow Indians as well as Africans in the nearby neighborhoods; these mercantile exchanges provided the main point of interaction between the Indians and the African populations. By 1957 there were about 85,000 Asians in and around Nairobi, many of them having migrated from India or other parts of eastern Africa to set up businesses in Kenya. Because they often arrived with at least some capital, they were able to buy taxicabs for hire by foreign visitors or to open various retail businesses.

From its inception, Nairobi was almost completely segregated along racial lines, though the segregation became more acute in the 1930s when more Africans began moving into the city. Despite the fact that the number of white inhabitants in Nairobi had also increased, the colonial government still felt the need to maintain their elevated status by instituting harsh "pass" laws, or Kipande laws, to restrict the movements of Africans. The pass laws made sure only those Africans who worked for Europeans could legally enter the city. They also had the added benefit of facilitating the collection of taxes by colonial officials and helping them monitor the shifting migrant populations. Ironically, the city that had been founded out of a need to cross the country was becoming a very restrictive place: travel throughout the city had become a privilege granted only to whites, and the Africans, if they were not hiking to and from work, were meant to stay put.

Yet even if Africans had been allowed to move freely around the city, there was no way for them to do so — except by foot. For most of the colonial period, Nairobi had only one public bus system — the Kenya Bus Service (KBS), which had been introduced in 1934 by the London-based Overseas Transport Company (OTC). The two buses operated by the company served the needs of whites only, though eventually the number of buses was increased and a few were allowed to transport Africans. By the late 1950s there were about thirty buses, but still there were not nearly enough to meet the needs of all commuters in Nairobi, and even if there had been enough, the buses charged fares that were too high for many Africans to afford. So the Africans continued to walk.


Excerpted from Matatu by Kenda Mutongi. Copyright © 2017 Kenda Mutongi. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

PART ONE Background
Introduction: Matatu

1 “The Only Way to Get There Was on Foot”

PART TWO Moving People, Building the Nation, 1960–73

2 “It Is a Diffi cult System to Beat”

3 “We Are Making a Living by Constitutional Means”

PART THREE Deregulation, 1973–84

4 Kenyatta’s Decree, 1973

5 “Jump In, Squeeze, Jump Out—Quickly!”

PART FOUR Government Regulation, 1984–88

6 The Matatu Bill of 1984

7 “Only Those Who Are Afraid Use Force”

PART FIVE Organized Crime? 1988–2014

8 KANU Youth Wingers

9 Mungiki: Fighting a Phantom?

PART SIX Generation Matatu, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1990–2014

10 Music, Politics, and Profit

11 “Pimp” My Ride

PART SEVEN Self- Regulation, 2003–14

12 The Michuki Rules

Conclusion: Making It in Nairobi


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