The Mad Matatus of Kenya

Travel Stories: In an excerpt from "The Lunatic Express," Carl Hoffman spends a sweaty, noisy, desperate 24 hours in Nairobi

We crawled through the mud and crowds and sparks, and in front of a corrugated shack stood three boys clutching a new leaf spring, and they dove into the project like it was their last chance for redemption. They had no jack; they slithered through the mud in jeans, their leader in a gray jumpsuit and Puma soccer cleats so worn that his toes stuck out and the cleats were the barest nubs. Kimani and I plunked down on the seat of an old bus in the sun in front of a shack that sold lukewarm sodas. “I am saving to buy a matatu,” he said. “Maybe in two or three years. But after the election there was a lot of trouble and people were fighting and we could not work for two weeks. We got no pay and it was a big loss.” He lit a cigarette, exhaled a long plume of smoke.

“Mr. Carl, can you get me a job in America?”

“A job is no problem,” I said, “but a visa is.”

“Can you get me a visa?”


He was silent, sweating, took his baseball cap off and rubbed his head. The heat was searing. Hammers smashed and banged and generators roared and flies landed on our arms, our faces. Children walked barefoot through the greasy mud with tubs of packages of cashews and cigarettes on their heads. A man draped in steering-wheel covers and screwdrivers and Playboy Bunny air fresheners, like a walking display case, hustled everyone in his path. Across the mud, a man welded on the back of a flatbed truck. He had no goggles, no face mask—against the eye-burning white light of the arc welder he held a shard of dark glass in front of his face. A fine layer of sanded Bondo drifted over and settled on my sweaty arms. Smoke filled the air from hundreds of fires. Broken, rusted, and smashed cars lay stacked on each other like books in a used-book store. A pair of 8-year-olds in ragged T-shirts slowly swept by, collecting bits of wire, stray nuts and bolts, which they dropped in a plastic bag. Another economic layer: the bottom, perhaps.

“Come,” said Kimani, “they must be finishing.” We walked back to the bus as the three mechanics slithered out from underneath it. They were black with grime and sweat. It had taken two hours, and Kimani was eager to get back out. The labor charge: 300 shillings. Five dollars split among three men.

The afternoon ground on in slow motion. More heat. More traffic. More noise and exhaust and more going nowhere. Kimani’s patience was extraordinary. Getting in and out of downtown Nairobi was five lanes of chaos, honking, and blue-black exhaust. Kimani chain-smoked and worked the wheel and gearshift with his sinewy arms as Phillip jumped and whistled and banged and gesticulated and cajoled. In Nairobi, at the train station, we literally hopped the curb and plowed along the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians. Near Ngong Town again the skies opened up and rain slammed down, snarling traffic, making the bus rank.

Suddenly we pulled over, Kimani grabbed me and we jumped out, and another man leapt into the bus and took the wheel. I have no idea how the shift had been arranged, but Kimani led me into a corrugated-roofed butchery with a dirt floor and bloody carcasses hanging from the ceiling. We washed our hands at a sink, and a man in a bloodstained white coat dumped a pile of fatty mutton onto a wooden board on our table. He chopped the meat with a cleaver, poured out a mound of salt, and slid a single bowl of ugali—corn flour—next to it all. We ate with our fingers, the mutton rich and flavorful, but inseparable from veins of thick gristle. I splurged, buying two Cokes for both of us, and they cost as much as the rest of the meal.

Fourteen hours after I’d met them, 16 hours after they’d started their day, Kimani and Phillip were at the Nairobi train station for the last time—they’d end their day when they dropped the last passengers off in Ngong Town. I’d been planning to get off the matatu, but Phillip said, “You should come back to Ngong Town with us and stay there tonight!”

“Where will I sleep?”

“Oh, we’ll put you somewhere,” he said. I was exhausted, sticky with sweat and grime, and hungry, but it seemed an offer too good to pass up.

“OK,” I said, “and I’ll buy you some beer if there’s a place to go.”

Before we pulled away, David Wambugo jumped on the matatu; he lived in Ngong Town, too, and his 48-hour taxi shift was done. “I am tired, so tired,” he said, his eyes drooping.

It was after 9 p.m. when Wambugo and I jumped out into pitch darkness and, after the downpour, a world of thick, soupy, sticky mud. Kimani said he’d drop off the vehicle, go home, get his car, and return to pick us up. Wambugo slapped and slid through the mud and the darkness, to a wall of concrete topped with corrugated tin, a metal doorway every ten feet. He banged on a steel door, locks clinked, the sound of steel on steel sliding, and the door swung open into his house: a single room 10 feet by 10 feet, where he lived with his wife, her sister, and their two children. There was a TV, a sofa, a one-burner stove on the floor, and behind a curtain, a narrow bed where the children slept. No bathroom. No kitchen. No running water. No windows. Posters of Bob Marley decorated the walls. Wambugo introduced me, and his wife silently brought me a steaming hot cup of sweet coffee and a bowl of sukuma, collard greens, which I wolfed down while watching a Nigerian soap opera about a rich man beset by bad fortune after refusing to donate money to his local Catholic church. Wambugo ate nothing. “I cannot eat,” he said, as rain pounded on the metal roof. “It is the mira. Tonight I will sleep and then tomorrow I will have a big breakfast!”

His cell phone rang; Kimani was here. We slipped through the mud again and drove to a dark, half-finished six-story concrete building surrounded by more mud and darkness. The door led into a cave, literally—a ramp that wound back and forth instead of stairs, whose walls and ceiling had been covered with rocks to make it feel like a cave. Upstairs was a bar, empty but open. I was so tired; it had been 17 hours since I’d met them at the train station. But finally, at midnight, 21hours after they’d started their day, Kimani and Phillip spilled the secrets of the matatu industry over warm pilsner in the deserted Ngong Town bar. They were, in fact, nickeled and dimed at every turn. Kimani and every other matatu had to slip 200 shillings to the police at every staging area, for the “privilege” of working the stage. “There are so many police taking a piece from you!” Kimani said. “There are police at the train station. Police in Ngong Town. Police on the roads,” said Kimani. “It is the best job! A policeman at the railway station makes at least 10,000 shillings a day, minimum, every day!”

“That’s crazy!” I said. “Why don’t you refuse to pay?”

“If you don’t pay the police, they will come on board the matatu and arrest you,” Kimani said, “and fine you 15,000 for something. It’s cheaper to pay. And sometimes the policeman will change in the middle of the day, so we must pay the new one all over again.”

“And the Mungiki is there and he finds you,” Phillip said. “If you don’t pay the Mungiki hundred shillings you will have your head cut off. Yes, you will lose your head.”

“How about reporting the Mungiki to the police?” I said.

Kimani and Phillip exploded in laughter. “The police are with Mungiki! No, you must pay always!”

Inspectors and matatu owners and robbers all demanded their share. It was Phillip’s job, as the tout, to take care of everyone; even as he had been cajoling passengers on board and hiring other touts he had been keeping track of the police and the Mungiki and every other sticky finger and greased palm.

Kimani’s matatu had been robbed at gunpoint three times. “Three or four men with guns get on the bus,” he said, looking serious, “and they say ‘move over.’ So you move over and they drive the bus to a remote place in the woods and steal everything. The first time, I was very worried. The gun was pointed at my head and it was even cocked. But now, hey, I just move over and let them work.” To make the robberies even worse, since the robbers stole the day’s proceeds, Kimani and Phillip did not get their day’s pay.

It was a vicious racket, a Hobbesian struggle to survive. Everyone was guilty and no one was innocent, not even Kimani and Phillip. The fares they charged changed according to the situation, price-gouging as art. “We double the fare in the rain,” Phillip said, laughing. “The sun is bad for the matatu driver!” They boosted it at rush hour. They had their freelance touts attract passengers at 40 shillings and then made the duped passengers pay 60, claiming the freelancers were unauthorized. “If they refuse to pay, we don’t let them off the matatu,” Kimani said, giggling and taking a swig of Tusker beer. “They must pay!”

Finally, at 1 a.m., they saw me into a concrete room with no running water behind a steel gate in a world of mud. I was delirious with fatigue, beaten up, my neck, back, knees, and shoulders aching; hungry for solitude and quiet and cleanliness; my nerves frayed from the constant jangling noise and crowds. Kimani and Phillip had four more days to go before the weekend. Another 70 or 80 hours of work for 50 bucks. And Wambugo had been working without sleep or food for two days and two nights, living purely on mira. And yet they all had been in a good mood, laughing and joking and eager to have another round.

I passed out, woke, and felt an overpowering need to escape. I threw my clothes on and stumbled out into a light rain. It was still dark and I didn’t really know where I was. Somewhere near Ngong Town. But, no worries. I stood on the side of the road and a pair of headlights swerved around a corner, flashed, and I held out my hand. A matatu screeched to a stop. I piled in, and there was Shakira wiggling her hips on the video. It was 6 a.m. The smallest bill I had was a hundred-shilling note. The tout took it and offered no change; this time I knew better than to argue. Thirty minutes later we were stuck in traffic a half mile from the train station. And I felt like I was about to snap, was snapping. The matatu stank so badly I couldn’t breathe. Hips and shoulders pressed against either side of me. The DVD—now it was Diddy—was deafening. I had been in the thick of it for 24 straight hours, nothing but crowds and their heavy, musky odor, a constant barrage of noise and people and mud and jostling. “Let me out!” I barked to the tout, and I leapt from the minivan as if I had been held underwater for too long. And never had I been so grateful for a dim, cheap hotel room. I whipped my clothes off and lay sprawled naked across the bed. The room was silent. Still. Clean. Secure. I was alone.

This has been excerpted from The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman.

Carl Hoffman

9 Comments for The Mad Matatus of Kenya

Richard Trillo 03.16.10 | 1:16 PM ET

The best description of the Nairobi matatu scene I’ve ever read. I’m exhausted. Thank you!

Ruth@Exodus 03.19.10 | 1:57 PM ET

Sounds totally crazy! Agree with Richard, exhausted reading it. Sound like you need a holiday!

Brenda 03.20.10 | 4:15 AM ET

Wow,I was sort of skeptical at first but I really enjoyed reading this piece….I live in Nairobi-Kenya and I couldnt agree with you more!!!!!I adore the loud matatus on route 48…Its like being in a mobile nightclub…minus the booze!!!!

Irene 03.20.10 | 4:36 AM ET

I just love Matatus and the buddies who drive them.  They give live to the city…....i usually have fun with them while on the road. I go on reading the writings on the sides and some of them they just make my day…........where the law is very strong, there is boredom.

HELLEN 03.25.10 | 3:44 AM ET

Love the exposition and totally agree. I live in Nairobi and I know it can get some getting used to.

Maina 03.25.10 | 4:11 AM ET

i must say, for a man who has lived all his teenage life in Niarobi, among all these robbers, car owners, police-cum-thugs and greasy fingers, i find this article very balanced. you never told us, though, what shocked you the most: the daily struggles, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles or how these “middle” men (Kimani and Phillip) manage to sleep, laugh, etc despite the sea of grease, noise, dirt , violence and hopelessness that you deeply described.

carl hoffman 03.29.10 | 5:35 PM ET

Thanks for all of your comments.  Maina, I’m not really shocked by dirt or noise or things like that, but it does always amaze me how people like David and Wakaba could be so cheerful despite such long working hours and noise and traffic and crowds; I guess I always see not hopelessness at all, but a lot of hope.  It’s easy to romanticize matatus from here in the USA, and to forget the corruption and danger inherent in them, yet I also wish we had something more like them in Washington, DC - they do lend life and energy and, most of all, efficiency - they’re always there when you need one!

Laurie 04.01.10 | 9:53 AM ET

Great description! I was only in Nairobi about a week but I really enjoyed reading about your experience there. Well said, “exhausting”.

Mwende 04.13.10 | 2:36 AM ET

It’s a great article. One feels amongst the matatu passengers while reading.
Imagine I’ve been so stupid to try and invest in having a matatu.

Guys like David and wakaba have the breakdown fixed for 300 Ksh and they’ll tell the owner in the evening it had costed them 3000 Ksh.

As an owner, i have made not 1 Ksh profit. I pay the driver, i pay the tout, i pay the maintenance and there’s nothing left for me.

I comfort myself in knowing that at least I pay 5 people a day an income ( driver,tout, mechanic, and 2 police guys)

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