The Ultimate Matatu experience

July 21, 2010

Have you ever stopped to wonder where the term Matatu was coined from? Well, papa Matrix, the all knowing, had a ready answer for me. It is said that during the colonialist times, transportation in Nairobi used to cost a flat rate of 3 coins. Yaani, mang’otore matatu. Otonglo time. Mapeni matatu.

Let’s start with the Matatus

Have you ever gotten in a ma3 that feels like the body is about to fall off whenever the driver accelerates? Recently I took a number 33 mat. I decided to ignore the noise until we got to that hill along Mbagathi way, then the conductor mumbles to the driver a.k.a pilot, ‘Njuguna, ngwiciria nitwaguithia injini.’ Translated to mean, ‘Njuguna, I think we just dropped the engine’. I reached for the window.

Most recently

On Monday evening I took a mat home. This ma3 had all its windows shut and the stuffiness was ridiculously intoxicating but considering the cold outside, that breath heat was most welcome. Then I notice this chap in front of me who had a mzungu guest. I could hear the white fela ask, ‘do you ever have air conditioning in the mah-tay-tuhs?’. Welcome to Kenya mate, the fairest air conditioning you get is snapping your window open.

Face Me

I got to visit some place in the interior of Bondo. They use face mes. For the not-so-conversant, face mes are pick-up trucks that are covered up with a metallic board and which contain two form like structures against the walls of the poor vehicle. Then up to seven people sit on each of the sitting structures facing each other. Hence the term face-me. Now, the govt placed a decree requiring all the ma3s to install seat belts. Applying this to face-mes, you get one mukanda (rope-like) seat belt across the form. To fasten it you following instructions:

  • Haiya, watu wakae square.
  • Wewe mama, rudisha mgongo nyuma. Kamata hiyo mtoto yako fisuri.
  • Haya, wewe kijana huko mwisho, shika kamba *throws the belt across*.
  • And the seven of you adults are belted up. The only missing ingredients from the picture are pegs.

To unfasten the belt, please do reverse the process.


Then there are mats to Ndumberi. Whoa! These are some Peugeot 504 beats up station wagons that triple rate of global warming with the amount of charcoal grey soot they release to the atmosphere. Here comes Matrix seated next to the driver, with a Kimbo labeled fan in between us rotating furiously to keep off fumes from the engine. Then, as we negotiate the corner at neck breaking speeds (the roof is very low) my door comes flying onto the road. Felt like a safari. Nuff said.

Up town

Then comes buruburu ma3s. We used to call them Manyangas. Now, you have some monied people who sit, while the rest of us stand holding onto the javelin – a long metalic object traversing the whole length of the ma3 for support purposes. For the taller people, the javelin acts as a support dancing pole especially around the corners. For the five foot tallers, well, the pole becomes a pendulum. The blasting music next to your ear for some reason tended to sound kinda ticklish on a nice way. One day, this lady, donning a strapless something, was dangling on the jav next to me, and in the process did not realize there was a slow but steady southside movement. Well, I leave it to your imagination for the other details.

The beautiful passengers

You get lucky on this particular day and sit next to the window in this 14 seater van. As you start enjoying the breeze and the view of hardworking con men outside, in comes a looker. Let’s just say the creator was really generous with her. Well endowed pear shapey. She’s carrying some shopping, is a little sweaty and now making good use of her cute eyes she beckons you to move over so she can seat next to the window as she seems to need it more. You oblige. You are now calculating the benefits that will come from the good gesture. You get up for her,  she takes your place. Then you try and sit in the adjacent seat. Then it happens. The moment she’s sat, she spreads out like an omelet on her seat and now onto yours. There goes you sprawling onto the floor. Enough with the courtesy.

Have you ever stopped to wonder how on earth we survived when the small ma3s used to sit 18 people in Nairobi, and 18 to the power of n, where n is the number of kilometers from the nearest cop?


Now, these are long distance buses that pry the Nairobi Embu route. Long distance not because of the distance (about 120Kms) but because of the time it takes to get you to your destination. These rainbow colored buses are slow enough on flat land, so whenever you hit the hill, the passengers are allowed a walk outside to rest. Oh, and as you walk out, watch out for that piglet that Nyina wa Marigu has just purchased at Marikiti. You step on it and you will be on your way back to Nairobi. Ah yes, here comes the juicy part. The buses have got carriers (locally known as kerias) at the roof which hold more stuff than on the inside. So imagine, being the lady you are (I doubt it), at the point of boarding you ask the makanga to delicately place your bag in the carrier. The fellow pole vaults it up there somewhere. When it is arrival time, the makanga can’t trace it, so you are asked to go up the carrier to fetch your own luggage. Your skirt flags merrily in the wind as you go up the shaky stairs ladder, while passengers stare droolingly from within. Once you get your bag, you pose and savor the titanic moment atop the monstrous bus.

All in all, don’t you get to miss these experiences whenever you take a break from them?



  1. You killed it. Matatu experiences are simply the best. Laking jungus who ask for air-conditioning in there need prayers and a jug of milk afterwards.

  2. Flatlined on the pendulum bit – Brings home far too many memories.

    As for the Ndumberi mats, I have had the (dubious) pleasure of being ferried in one whose steering wheel broke in two while negotiating a corner. Lets just say that the negotiations fell through…and leave it at that.

    Good writing man.

  3. Thanks a bunch guys.

  4. Good post!

  5. Ha ha. you’ve certainly been in a lot of matatus

    • Oh yeah. Today I’ve had a great time riding one. Post will follow suit.

  6. I didn’t know the face me once still existed. i guess after the experiences you must have decided to own a car. or would you rather continue having fun in the ma3s? Nice one.

    • I have on many occasions left the car behind just to enjoy the experience. It is improving every day.

  7. Lol! Interesting post! 🙂

  8. Great Post! I was up in the boondocks and got to experience the thrill of “sambaza” where a wooden plank is placed between that ka space between the seats to create a hanging stool.
    Michuki rules, it seems, do not work in some areas!

  9. Oh yeah. But then again why take away the fun from all this? Try the Thika mats and see if a chicken won’t fly onto your fly.

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