Transportation Turned Performance Art: Nairobi’s Matatu Crews

NAIROBI, Kenya — Clutching the door frame, Sheriff Safania Maina leans out of the bus as it hits potholes going 45 miles per hour. He jumps out of the door of the vehicle as it slows down. He starts to run alongside it. He yells, encouraging people to board. He spots a prospective passenger and bangs on the side of the vehicle to signal the driver to stop. He helps a woman with her bag get on. He hops back in.

“This is my office,” he yells, as “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar blares out of bus’s 28 speakers.

Mr. Maina is one of many young people in Nairobi who work on a matatu, the privately owned buses that have transported at least 60 percent of Nairobi’s population since the early ’60s. The word matatu comes from the Kikuyu word for “three,” referring to the three ten-cent coins used to pay for a ride to the city when matatus first started operating. In the mid-to late 1990s, matatu drivers became known in Nairobi for their infamously dangerous driving habits, and the industry was linked with violent criminal gangs like Mungiki, who infiltrated matatu routes and extorted “protection” money from matatu crews.

In 2004, the government attempted to clean up the industry and instated the Michuki rules, which require matatus to have speed regulators, proper seatbelts and a uniformed crew. But these rules were rarely enforced because of police corruption on the streets, according to John Gichigi, the branch executive officer at Matatu Owners Association. In 2010, in efforts to eliminate gangs from the industry, matatu owners became members of a SACCO or a Savings and Credit Cooperation Organization. There are multiple privately owned SACCO’s in Kenya. They are cooperatives which make it easier to register and manage the matatus and their routes.

Today, a growing number of young people in Nairobi have been trying to rebrand matatu culture, once seen as dangerous and reckless, through polite manners, art and social media.

Mr. Maina has more than 4,500 followers on Instagram, and said that posting regularly helps maintain his brand. In a post from January, he stands in front of Woodini, the matatu on which he works, staring defiantly into the camera as passengers look on.

“Most of my clients, I got them through social media,” he says. “They see my posts and they want to come ride with me.” There are a lot of matatus on each route, so passengers choose to ride the matatus considered the coolest on their route.

“Be clean, dress smartly, be polite,” said Brian Ouma, Woodini’s driver, of the unofficial rules on his matatu. “Before, the job was associated with riffraff, but we want to change that perception. Customers come for the experience.”

In Nairobi’s Central Business District, matatus line up next to leafy palm trees and fried chicken and chip shops in anticipation of customers, featuring a variety of themes.

A Scooby Doo-themed matatu is painted neon pink and has a fluffy Scooby Doo doll hanging on the dashboard. Down the road, on the Breaking Bad, images of the characters Walter White and Jesse Pinkman and a gold periodic table elements outfit the matatu. On Giovanni, a Spartan helmet sits above the number 300 spray painted across the windows as a nod to the film. There is even an Iggy Azalea-themed one.

Anna Mugure, one of the only female matatu drivers, steers Revolt, a bus covered in graffiti of revolutionary leaders like Malcolm X and Che Guevara. She said she has had to be more aggressive on the road — and with the matatu community.

“I can match any man on the road driving. I have to show them I’m not easy. I have to be tough,” she said, skillfully cutting off another driver before pulling onto the side of the highway to drop off a passenger.

Even though she has been in the industry for 21 years, first as a conductor and now a driver, she said male drivers ignore and often harass her on the road. The appreciation from some of her female passengers keeps her motivated. “People are surprised to see me in the driver’s seat,” she said. “But I fell in love with matatu culture.”

“My friends say I treat it like it’s my baby,” says Roy Johnson Mungai, the owner and designer of Woodini, a red and gray matatu that displays the faces of some of hip-hop’s greatest names: Tupac, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. “I add small details like fuzzy side mirrors, and people notice.” He estimated that he has spent 7.5 million Kenyan shillings, or about $75,000, on to outfit the vehicle.

It pays to have the most elaborate matatu in town: The better-designed vehicles can charge up to three times as much as plain ones.

Dressing fashionably is just another aspect of what some consider a show-off culture, which started in the 1990s and early 2000s, with what the author Kenda Mutongi calls “Generation Matatu.” In her book, “Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi,” she describes a generation of young, educated men and women who grew up as Kenya’s neoliberal economic policies developed, and who were disenchanted with government work and unable to find employment other than in the growing matatu industry. “Social or economic class seemed to be less important than knowing the latest hip-hop hits, or wearing the right kinds of clothes,” Ms. Mutongi wrote.

“I have a theme today; it’s all Gucci,” Mr. Ouma said. “I got the hat and scarf from a shop here in town but a friend in the U.S. sent me these shoes.”

Also part of the job are the matatu conductors’ death-defying stunts. They run and jump onto moving matatus, or hang off the edge of the door frame, their feet nearly grazing the ground. Mr. Maina makes sure to fit in a few stunts during each 10-hour shift just to stay awake. One trick involves kicking up his legs into a backbend on the side of the matatu.

“I believe in hard work, I never relax, and I dress to kill,” he said. “And my shoes and shirt color always match.”

Dennis Muraguri, 37, a multimedia artist in Nairobi, recalled a matatu stop outside his window growing up in Naivasha, a town west of Nairobi. “From when I was a kid, I was fascinated with the whole theater of it,” he said. The artist now creates vivid woodblock prints of matatus from scenes he photographs around Nairobi, and sells his artwork in Kenya and abroad. In his studio, his prints hang to dry on clotheslines, stickers with images of matatus cover the furniture and a photo series of matatu stunts lines the wall — a matatu obsession that he hopes is catching on.

“The matatu is an icon in Nairobi. It’s not just graffiti on the walls. It’s not just the car,” he said. “It’s everybody and everything. Even the city around the matatu is part of the whole affair.”

Brian Wanyama, 27, a self-proclaimed matatu ambassador and publicist, “grew up boarding the coolest matatus in Kenya,” including one called Brain Child, where passengers sat on recycled airplane seats. In 2010, Mr. Wanyama helped rebrand the matatu industry’s image by starting “Matwana Matatu Culture,” a social media campaign at Nairobi Design Week that promotes and preserves the industry by sharing photos of designs online, hosting award ceremonies that celebrate the vehicles and their crews and championing road safety practices.

“People don’t know that matatu culture is a big community,” he said. “Matatus connect everyone.”