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  • Writer's pictureAnn Yebei

Matatus and Buses: My Story

Blog Post #1: For Mufasa Poet et al.'s Art Project speaking out for many on the need for reformation in Kenya's public transportation system


The last time I was in Kenya, it was 2019- just before I flew back to the United States of America to start my Masters in Mental Health Counseling Spring of 2020. It’s been 2 years since- longer than initially planned thanks to COVID. Perhaps some changes have been put in place in Eldoret and Nairobi since 2019. Changes involving traffic lights, road and sidewalk installation, and other infrastructure development to help diffuse both traffic and services, so people have closer alternatives to their homes for leisure and necessities. Perhaps this is just a wish- a dream. Whatever the case, the sad truth is one of the deterring factors in returning home is the general organization and infrastructure (or lack of) in the urban and rural areas of home.

Each locality and nation has its own flaws and areas of improvement- US has issues. I won’t lie. Poverty is a universal challenge; it just may not be as immediately visible- or as stark- as other, less economically developed, places. Racism is a part of its history and healing journey. It’s challenging to get places without a car sometimes. And so on and so forth. But urban planning exists. It is understood, just as you would with your house and personal space, that order allows for functionality, hygiene, and esteem. It just makes sense to have a shared blueprint about where the resources are, the people are, and how to make links most efficiently between the two.

In Kenya, however, this seems to not settle- whether it be in the minds of leaders, or in the on-the-groundwork. Whether it be corruption, nepotism, lack of professionalism, or ignorance, elites and leaders grab land alike with no regards to collective and long-term planning. “Letting the chips fall where they may” was not meant to be used as such. That’s how you can assuredly waste resources- and spectacularly.

Anyway- story time. I will rewind to my Undergraduate years in Eldoret, fresh from High School in the States, and timid about walking about urban Eldoret because people didn’t seem to know how to drive, and I was not fluent in Kiswahili. I eventually did; picking familiar places and running errands alone or with friends. Soon, Eldoret became an exceedingly small place in my mind, and this became an experience I was grateful for since it built my confidence in maneuvering unfamiliar city centers in the future, one step at a time.

Tuk-tuks are popular in Eldoret and were one of the first public means of transport I would use to get downtown- that and piki-pikis, motorbikes. The danger of bike riding is obvious (we were usually not given helmets and people often piled in the back, with or without luggage), so I promised my mother to only use one person well-known in the neighborhood for being a multi-purpose handyman.

A yellow-dark green tuk-tuk is parallel parked by a sidewalk with a lit, urban, backdrop
A yellow-dark green tuk-tuk

The tuk-tuks (and piki-pikis) were tiny and, if traffic were bad, would sometimes freely weave through traffic by virtue of their size alone. Rules were not obeyed because there was no integrity to be held- there was no shared trust on the road, just destinations. However, my nervousness with tuk-tuks were slim compared to how frequent I would find myself praying in a matatu.

eMatatus…are infamous. I can bet above piki-pikis and tuk-tuks, people will mention the infamous vans as a hazard above all other modes of transport. Lack of adequate regulation (influenced by the lack of urban planning, I’m sure) results in an overflow of matatus throughout urban settings and severe congestion. Waiting lines and jams are to be expected. Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya, has a larger bus system than Eldoret did, but maintains the same challenges as their smaller counterparts: lack of regulation, planning, and contribution to traffic jams. On the individual level, at least you could get personal and familiar with the tuk-tuk and piki-piki drivers/riders, allowing for accommodations and acquiescing to saner driving fashions. Having that with buses or matatus couldn’t be taken for granted. It was more likely the conductors would ignore you- or temporarily accommodate you for a time, if not the entire sit-in you’re present.

Coach buses in Nairobi are parallel parked as one enteres an empty spot
City Hoppa and KBS Buses in Nairobi

As a deaf person, let me just air this out before I mention a particular bus story: I have no control on if you’d like to keep your hearing or not. I just acknowledge the grief that accompanies loss of any kind, and that transition to being DHH can be challenging for some. And that’s what I’m worried about: your hearing and mental health. If you don’t mind adding to the DHH community- continue listening to that obnoxiously loud music from an early age. I don’t lose anything (literally. I can’t get any deafer). I’m just saying it doesn’t have to be the norm. If more people asked for the music to be lowered to, I don’t know, healthier listening levels, we’d all be for the better. Such a marketing scheme is elementary at best anyway.

I started asking each conductor I was with when I was volunteering in Nairobi around 2019 to lower the volume and it reached a point one of them would recognize me and just tell the driver to drop it a level or so. (I know. I was proud of myself). However, that experience shed light of the lack of hearing health awareness in the mainstream and prompted me to think about how such education topics can target work unions of drivers and conductors as an avenue of health advocacy and public health awareness.

Okay, back to the stories: Buses are huge. Accessibility is a pain. And public security is wanting. I’ve had my phone stolen from me when I was inside the bus. By someone outside of the bus. Take note that my window was closed- he’d taken the effort to jump up, slam my window partially open, and nab my phone. That was a traumatizing experience no one was willing to help me with thereafter in the bus, except a peer (she was either a Millennial or Gen-Y). She lent me her phone so I could call home and tell them not to send anyone money- should the thieves try that.

A young man with dark skin is standing in front of a mild green backdrop to contrast their skin tone and the paler green hoodie they are wearing. He is looking at his phone, raised at eye level, and which sheds hot pink light onto his face and chest.
Modern Entertainment: Phones

I had just been robbed but I was treated as untrustworthy by people in the bus. There was just no empathy. Perhaps they did feel sorry for me. But to say no one in that bus had enough airtime or phone credit for one call?

This did nothing to help me feel safe in public spaces- safe enough to freely go wherever, whenever- in Nairobi. I learnt from that and never took my phone out while on the street or public transport since.

Matatus are even worse. Smaller as they are, I felt my survival chances drop. I’d rather be in a bus during an accident. I am grateful that I’ve never experienced any sexual assault- let it be physical, verbal, or sexual- as a woman. I also have a couple fond memories of matatus on my more spirited days (I’ve “parkoured” myself out the back side window of a matatu before it started moving). They speed and I have heard tragic death stories about bursting through railings, overturning in ditches, and crashes at junctions or highways due to speeding and ill overtaking attempts. If they were less, obeyed traffic, and controlled their speed, perhaps I would feel safer in one.

A line of vans called matatus are parked at a station area, waiting for clients. Signs marking destination of each van are placed on the roof of each van with conductors managing the area in matching red themed tops.
A Matatu Station in Kenya

Not all drivers are bad. My concern is that the rotten apples will kill people- and set toxic norms or expectations about the industry and driving in general. I don’t want to be a statistic. You also deserve better. If leaders could be intentional with planning cities and public versus private transport (and the specifics therein- like buses versus matatus versus tuk-tuks, etc.), we could all do more than just survive- we could see how to create greener public and private spaces, be creative with healthy living via establishment of parks, biking trails, walking paths, etc. There’s so much this leads and lends to- this isn’t just about gas prices, air pollution and smog, and the fact I must wake up at 4 or 5am to get anywhere in downtown or the-other-side of Nairobi because of factored logistic time. Planning is life and life is decision-making.

As to stories I’ve witnessed, I have seen a tuk-tuk in a ditch before, but I’ve never witnessed an accident about to happen, or a harassment related to a bus, matatu, piki-piki, or tuk-tuk. Those stories, as I can best presently recall, don’t seem to be mine to tell. It would be great if this remains the same the next time, I talk about this- should I end up doing so. I look forward to seeing and hearing the other stories shared by others for Mufasa Poet and others to use on their art platforms about public safety and transportation development. Here’s to our voice and the rich future.

For those interested in submitting their stories, take note of Mufasa’s instructions in the embeded photo link at the top, or his Facebook page, and remember that the submission deadline is around May 18th- 4 days from now!


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