matatu culture
MATATU CULTURE. / COURTESY

Kenya’s matatu culture has evolved over time from the seven a side matatus to the vibrant minibuses that are sometimes a tad chaotic and loud but is still the most preferred mode of transport.

The name was coined from the 30 cents fare charged for any destination within Nairobi. Matatu means three in Kikuyu.

The Kenya Bus Service was first of its kind, running the show within the city. The services were orderly complete with a timetable and sixty years later, the transport industry might be chaotic and an extortionists’ arena but is at the same time a multi-billion shilling industry that has created employment for many.

It is in the 1950s when matatus then known as “pirate taxis” became a force to reckon with fully equipped with makangas who acted in a similar fashion as the colonial guards.

In the 1960s came the Coast Bus then shortly after was Coast Bus Herbal. It is around this time that Kenya gained its independence but with it came the banning of at least 100 matatus by Transport and Licensing Board chairman J.K. Gatuguta.

Most plied the Jericho, Maringo, Kaloleni, Mbotela, Jerusalem, Hamza, Makadara, and Makongeni routes while trying to avoid the police.

Country buses were operational but could not pick and drop passengers within the Central Business District (CBD). The City Council had issued a ban because their Kenya Bus business was being threatened.

Then Minister for Power and Communications Ronald Ngala introduced strict rules governing the public transport industry. He went as far as issuing a night travel ban for lorries. It is then that he was summoned to State House by then President Jomo Kenyatta.

The new entrant into the industry was the seven a side pick ups and the Ford Transit matatus which posed a threat to the already thriving KBS.

In 1972, police sought to kill off the industry describing the pirate taxis as “uninsured, unhygienic, unlicensed and dangerous” to users.

It is in 1973 however that matatus were recognized as a public mode of transport.

In 1980, President Daniel Arap Moi introduced the Nyayo Bus Service threatening KBS’ monopoly.

But Nyayo Bus service could not meet its objective leading to the revival of KBS which was rebranded to Kenya Bus Express and later Stage Coach.

With the 90s came flashy, loud matatus like Total Madness with the cool grafitti and an even flashier interior.

Matatus are now constantly trying to out do each other on a daily basis.

The public transport industry has been under threat since time immemorial when police started to take bribes from them up until now.

In 2004 under the leadership of then Transport minister John Michuki, matatus were required to install safety belts, speed governors but police saw this as an opportunity to extort matatu owners.

Only last year were the regulations re-introduced by Interior CS Fred Matiang’i.

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