From what I can see, the Matatu is by far and away the most widely used mode of motorized transportation here in Kenya.  For Kenyan’s that is.  They are small vans a little bigger that the standard suburban minivan and a lot smaller that a full sized passenger van.  They are driven by notoriously dangerous dirvers, they are cheap, and they are everywhere.   From Thika to Nairobi it costs 100 bob, like $1.30 so you can’t complian about the price.  So far I have only met a couple other Mzungu who have ever ridden in one. I’ve heard countless stories about crashes, roberies, and everything bad that happens on them, which is all true.  They are flipped on the side of the road, they drive like the Tazmanian Devil is at the wheel, and almost every Kenyan has a wild Matatu story.  Well I can never pass up an adventure so when Haron and I were talking about coming into Narobi last night and realized that both of our wives needed the cars I suggested we catch a Matatu. 

What’s good enough for anyone is good enough for me.  So today I spent about 5 hours in 6 different Mataus traveling a grand total of about 50 miles.  It was quite an experience and one I look forward to repeating, not sure why, but I do. So you have the size of this thing in you mind right?  Now imagine it packed with 14 people, windows up, steamy, hot, super smelly, with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blasting so loud the speakers are distorting.  Followed by some 80’s Boys – to – Men, and a little Wam, on and on and on.  In the urban areas they have restrictions on how many people are allowed in these things which are enforced by the police.  Apparently in the rural areas where there’s no one to enforce it they fill them up with up to 30 people.  This is seriously unimaginable to me because today one of them was so packed we had to push each other in to get into the seats.  There is not enought room between the seat back and the seat in fromt for my femur bone so I wouldhave to alternate between having my knees up (in that position my knees were less than a foot from my chin) and a partial squat where my butt wasn’t fully on the seat.  You are so tight side to side that you can’t move your legs to gain a little space. I had a man’s hand on my thigh for well over 5 minutes..not sure why. Oh, and the one time I sat in the back there iwas a bar that I had to constantly duck my head under so it wouldn’t slam me while we were catching air over the speed bumps. 

Did I mention the windows were UP.  Not sure if I was the only hot one on there, but everyone else seemed rather content.  As we were craming ourselves into the final leg of our journey I got a little nervous.  This Matatu was small even by Matatu standards, it was really actually funny how tiny the seats were, there were still just as many though…the legal limit..wouldn’t want to miss out on a fare.  On this one people were litterally straining to get themselves into their seats and I pushed a few people through the 5 inch “hall” to the back seat.  Several people got out because they simply couldn’t get in no matter how they contorted themselves.  I actually contemplated paying the remainng fares so we could just go because it was painful to watch people try to jam in and they don’t leave unitl it’s at capacity.  Oh yeah, back to getting nervous.  Just a thought…if it’s near impossible to get in…what does that look like in a accident?  After a quick moment of clausterphobic pannic I did a little thought stopping mind trick on myself and relaxed.  So in the US this van could hold 7 passengers max, so picture us, 14.  Deffinetly got my 100 shillings worth of adventure today. Haron slept like a baby on there by the way, I actually slept a bit too. 

Oh, one last detail I almost forgot.  Our car has wonderful recirculated air, Matatus do not, Nairobi has LOTs of polution, I now have a sore throat from all the fumes today, that can’t be good.  All in all I have to say it’s not how I’d like to get around everyday, but it is a rich/full experience, equally as exciting as any amusement park ride, way cheaper and it gets you there.   Go ride a matau!

7 thoughts on “Matatu

  • Anna

    LOVED all the blogs updated!!!

  • Karissa

    Can we say carsick??? This would be an excellent way to make me throw-up. I could feel the nausea coming on just from reading about it. Glad you enjoyed yourself though.

  • Eve

    I’m game for packing our van full for dollar scoop night trips to simulate this when you get back. We could even drive around for 5 hours like we are lost. Maybe I’ll rally up some people and practice before you get home so we are experienced. This sounds CRAZY!!! Glad you are anxious to repeat it though!

  • connie clemens

    I can totally relate. After sitting with my knees up like you did, I could barely get out-bad knees. The drivers put me in front with them the next trip. That had its downside too however… I could witness every near mishap and there were plenty. I actually saw a young girl carrying bananas on her head run over by a big truck. The drivers were very upset because the truck kept going. Sometimes you think everyone must be numb to all the terrible things that happen in Africa because it is a day to day fact of life for them. But, of course, they aren’t- they hurt terribly. Thank-you for reaching out with a smile or a pat on the back to everyone! We know God loves each one of them as much as He loves us- now is your chance to help them know it. 🙂 You are all in my prayers daily.

  • Amerika

    Wow – seriously – I can’t imagine this. I’m glad you are game, though, Ian. What an experience. What a ride.
    I want to join in on the dollar scoop night matatu ride. When you get back here, you’re going to be irritated that things do not cost 100 bob.

  • Ron Stull


    One of our friends in Kisumu, Moses, used to be a matatu ticket taker. He told us he got paid by how many people he could stuff in the van. His goal was not to have less than 24 paying riders, not sure if that included the goats or not. As Connie mentioned, when we used the matatu’s for moving our group around we would put 6 or 8 max in those things, and I still felt like a sardine. THe Kenyans tolerance for warm steamy car rides is amazing. Sometimes I think they all sleep just so 1) they forget about how stuffy it is, and 2) so they don;t see the “near misses” on the journey.

    Glad you enjoyed the adventure.


  • Barb Palmer

    Anne and Ian – I LOVE your blog! And what precious children you have! My husband, daughter and I were on the first Kenya trip with Ron, Frank, Connie, and about 45 others, so I am finding your descriptions both familiar and new, yet delightfully fun either way! I laughed at the matatu story, because one morning when we were piling into the vans to be “driven” somewhere, I sat down and quickly became very wet, only to find out that they “power-washed” them –outside AND inside! I guess it is faster that way?! Kenya is such an interesting place! I am a teacher and you should know that one of my 6th-grade guys, who is supposed to be studying “the world” in social studies, won’t make it through all the countries, so he is reading your blogs to learn first-hand about Africa! Much better education than the book, anyway! Thanks! Keep ’em coming!

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