Thursday, July 3, 2008

Matatu Love

In Kenya, a matatu is how you get from point A to point B. A matatu is a public service vehicle, crammed with lots of stinky humanity (Alice not exempt from that statement) and possibly chickens. Maybe a goat.

They were fast. They were scary. They had to make announcements like this on Kenyan radio: “Please remember not to drive on the sidewalks, as it can be dangerous.” True story.

A matatu was required (by law) to have a cool name painted on the side like ’Love Injection’, ‘The Combine’ or ‘Thugalator’. Dave claims he saw ‘Big Titty #1’ AND ‘#2’. A matatu generally carried a placard in the front window letting you know its route. My favorite driver gave me one from his matatu and a friend had the other one made for me:


The Driver – Man who drove, generally with a big, scary wad of miraa hanging out of his mouth. Wouldn’t want the driver to fall asleep behind the wheel now would we?

The Tout – Collected money. Hung out of the matatu yelling the destination. Penchant for snapping fingers and clicking tongue to get attention.

Saved Man Passenger

SM: Have you taken the Lord Jesus Christ as
your personal savior, praise God, Hallelujah?

Alice: No. I’m Hindu.
Extra Stinky Man Passenger

Alice: It IS possible to breathe through my
mouth for the next 45 minutes.

Big Fat Mama Passenger

BFM: Habari yako? Blah blah blah... (in
Swahili at lightening fast speed)

Alice: If you speak slowly, I can understand (this was said in Swahili, but I’ve lost what little grasp on that I had.)

BFM: HAHAHAHAHAAAAA… (This is honestly how it went until I pulled out a book.)


The Western Matatu is a pickup truck in which the bed has been revamped to accommodate benches along three sides. I only took this particular type of matatu ONCE, reaching new levels of misery. For an hour, I was wedged in the back, where one of my thighs wasn’t actually touching the seat because it was resting on the thigh of the woman next to me. I emerged like a blind man seeing the sun for the first time and promptly stumbled out the back because my right leg was completely numb. With several kilometers of walking still ahead, I had to stand by the side of the road for five minutes beating the blood back into circulation.


Any small minivan was called a Nissan, whether it was actually a Nissan or not. My village got these puppies a little late in the game, but they were by far the best option for me to get to Mombasa quickly. You had three rows in the back, each holding 4 people. Two people sat in front with the driver.

Music was generally Bob Marley or Lucky Dube and they DIDN”T stop for folks with large items. If you could get a seat in the front, you were golden. You just had to be secure in foreseeing your own death as the driver passed on a blind curve.


The mini-bus was what I rode about half the time from my village to Mombasa. This matatu was larger than the Nissan, but smaller than an all-out bus. Music was generally The Ace of Base at ear-splitting levels. The downside of this matatu was that it was large enough to accommodate people with lots of THINGS. Like bananas. And mattresses. And 5 gallon drums of mnazi. Mnazi is the fermented sap from a coconut tree. Mnazi smells like wet gym socks left in the sun for a week. Mnazi tastes like wet gym socks left in the sun for a week. I witnessed Kenyans yelling at drivers NOT to stop for a person hunkered on the road beside drums of mnazi. But it gets you drunk and I suppose that’s what counts.


From the mini-bus – you made the leap to actual bus. Malindi Bus was known for its extraordinary speed and rumor has it that a Malindi Bus passed a driver in the 555 Safari Rally. They really weren’t too bad since you didn’t get the overwhelming packed-in feeling of the smaller matatus. And there was the added luxury of knowing you were on the safer side of an accident because of sheer size and brute strength.

Now that you’re a pro, just remember to haggle price BEFORE you take off!

Click on

Humor-Blogs if you enjoy listening to “I Shot the Sheriff” on continuous loop.

(Pictures are from the internet since I apparently took NO matatu pictures in Kenya. Please don't sue me.)


Robyn said...

You're so much cooler than I.

I've ridden in a mini-van full of drag queens, does that count?


Somewhere, Someplace, Somehow I just know there's a group of people that run the Matatu Love version of the Mile High Club.....

Tink said...

Awesome post! I always learn something new over here.


You should have pulled a "Penelope" from Trading Places to deal with stinky passengers. Remember how she sprayed the homeless guy sitting next to her with Binaca? Classic.

Sue said...

OMG Alice everytime you regale us with one of your Traveling the World stories I feel like such a boring shlub. The closest I could say was a trip to Cancun, but there was a waiter named Gimer taking my drink orders from the hot tub every 30 minutes.

Cassie said...

Holding your breath for 45 minutes couldn't have been an easy feat, though I'm sure it was absolutely necessary haha.

Alice said...

Robyn - Actually, a mini-van full of drag queens sounds far more exciting!

Elastic - Holy Crap! I would have peed myself at that episode. Alas, I had no Binaca. I didn't have much of anything besides OMO (with Blue Power Foam) to wash my clothes. And dishes.

Tink - You'll probably learn stuff you never wanted to know over here. ; )

Sue - Believe you me. My days of schlepping a backpack around are OVER. I'm all about the hot tub with a hot latino man bringing me drinks.

Cassie - Yes, very necessary. There is body odor. And then there is body ODOR.

Bee said...

Sad to say these modes of transport are still used in Mexico.
I've been stuck with people so ripe, I'd rather smell dead skunk for the rest of my life.

Hey It's Di said...

I've been passenger in a few scary rides myself and with stinky people! That is until my husband pulls our Mini Van into the driveway and the kids get out;)

I love your Kenya stories!

Meg said...

At least they have good taste in Reggae.

Nice post.

Mary Witzl said...

Another wonderful story! I wish I'd done this when I was younger, back before my sense of mortality was fully developed. I'm not sure I could take it now.

My husband lived and worked in Sudan for two years and traveled around in trucks,. He reports similar stories, though he was spared most of the spiritual stuff. Or rather, he got more of Mohammed than he did of Jesus.

Walking With Scissors said...

When I was about 10, my dad got a job offer in Kenya. After much deliberation, it was decided that we would stay put but I always wish we had gone, even for a year. What a great adventure that would have been! Thanks for this post - loved it. :)

adriane said...

wow! I love the pictures and I had never even thought about the transit system in Kenya. How cool is that? I'm so jealous! Take me with you next time- I'll ride the Matatu with you.

Alice said...

Bee - I wish they had them here sometimes. It was so convenient believe it or not. But I could definitely deal with less stink.

Di - Good one. Really.

Meg - They SOMETIMES had good taste in reggae. And then there was Kenny Rogers.

Mary - I loved living on the coast where it was more Muslim. I didn't get harassed at all about being saved living there. And how scary for your husband to work in Sudan. Were you there at all too?

WWScissors - That's such a shame that you missed that opportunity. It is REALLY beautiful there and hope you get to see it one day.

Adriane - I'll sign you up! I would love to go back with my kids, but the past election put the country back and it's a little too nuts.

Mary Witzl said...

No, I was never in Sudan -- God, I hate admitting that!

I comfort myself by thinking that I missed out on amebic dysentery, malaria, schistosomiasis, giardia lamblia, and other exotic treats. To this day my husband cannot give blood, but I reckon he'd be a shoo-in if tropical medical specialists were ever looking for fecal donor volunteers.

Manager Mom said...

Wow... now I REALLY can't wait until Spawn go to college, so I can travel to places without "-land" or a cartoon character in their names...

Kylie in Warsaw said...

THAT IS AWESOME! You brought back fond memories of Ghana for me (we called them least the mini buses were called tro-tros). And they all had the phrases on the backs too! I have a little wooden mini tro-tro that says "Fear God" on the back! AWESOME!

LceeL said...

Amazing stuff, Alice. You're an amazing woman. BTW I answered your question at my place with the whole cast of characters - but GRannie is my soon to be 82 year old Mom.

Half-Past Kissin' Time said...

Sounds like quite the adventure! Remind me again what you're doing over there?? (I'll read back.) I also found your email, thanks!

Bex said...

EXCELLENT post. I was right there with I can't get Bob Marley out of head, though.

Big Momma Pimpalishisness said...

all of those look like a lot of fun.

Haha, Ace Of Base

Janet said...

wow and I thought the public transportation on St. Thomas was bad!!!

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