They are flashy, they are loud, they are the backbone of local transport: In Nairobi, imaginatively pimped-out buses compete for passengers – and to get to their destination in style
The beat drives passers-by along, makes windows shake, signals to everyone here on the main street of Ongata Rongai, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa: There’s not just a bus waiting here. Here stands a fiery red flash, a disco on wheels.
This is where an adventure begins.
The beat shoots into the feet of Benarnd Njoroge, 32, whom they call the „little man“. He performs a few dizzying dance steps, spins in the air, then runs on, whistling, laughing, screaming. He flits like a pinball. A moment ago he was moving along the right side of the bus, now he darts out on his left. Pats shoulders, cracks wise, squeezes hands; now the phone rings, „yeah dude“, he lights a fag. He looks as if someone had wound him up in the morning, now he’s whizzing through the day like one of those mad tin drummers.
He raises his hand to his mouth: „Train station, Nairobi! Get in! We are the fastest. Our sound is the best, the comfort a dream. With us you can experience something, get on board!“
His hair is twisted into thin dreadlocks, a pattern is shaved into his right eyebrow, a silver-plated jewelled tooth flashes between his lips. Style is everything in this business. His head darts to the left, from there a pretty passer-by strolls up, school uniform, braided hairdo, infinitely long eyelashes. Benarnd presses himself against her, walks next to her, chatting to her from the side, grabs her by the arm, gently pushes her towards the bus door. She is almost inside when two competitors rush up. Three men surround the girl, relentlessly wooing, chattering, babbling. The competitors have won, they lead the girl away to the door of their bus. Benarnd angrily shoves one of the men in the back, then dashes on.
He herds his customers together like a shepherd dog herding sheep. 21 passengers are still missing.
He has to fill 33 seats before the bus can leave. The sooner the bus is full, the more tours they can do, the more money they can earn. And Benarnd loves fast money. Between his fingers are the notes, neatly folded and arranged in ascending order of value.
For a ride in his pimped-out bus „Mixtape“, passengers are willing to pay double the usual fare; 100 Kenya shillings equivalent to 86 cents, at peak times even KES 150.Getting to school in a trendy bus is a status symbol. And there are passengers who get on even though they don’t want to go anywhere, for example to watch the latest music videos or series. A noisy pleasure ride.
You could sleepily call Benarnd a conductor and the vehicle he works in a bus; but that would do neither Benarnd nor „Mixtape“ justice. Benarnd is a „makanga“: conductor, entertainer, problem solver, fashion idol. And Mixtape is a „matatu“, which is the name of the puffy buses in Kenya. There are matatus for every age group, every budget and every musical taste: hip-hop, ragga, Afrobeat, gospel and traditional music. Matatus are rolling works of art. For this, an ordinary bus, usually a second-hand Japanese model, has to be „pimped“. Particularly dazzling specimens are called manyangas. Each of them has a theme: Batman, Spiderman, series like „House of Cards“, musicians like Rihanna, celebrities like the Kardashanians. There are buses where boxing matches are broadcast and others where passengers can watch series; many have wifi.
Manyangas are the business class of local transport. And Rongai, suburb of Nairobi, is famous for its manyangas.
Mixtape is a bright red behemoth with a giant spoiler that carries its silver superstructure like a tank. Next to the rear lights is a bar of colourful lamps that flicker in time with the beat. The rear-view mirror is wrapped in red fake fur, paintings adorn the chassis. If this seems extravagant for a public transport vehicle, get in, drop into one of the red and black seats and get ready for an all-round audiovisual experience. The bass is now so loud that it pushes you into your chair, light organs spin, hip-hop dancers gyrate their hips on video screens, while Jackie Chan beats up his opponents on a cinema screen.
Mixtape competes with manyangas like the shimmering metallic blue Hot Wheels covered in red-licking flames. Every seat is adorned with the embroidery of a snarling pit bull The Makanga is famous for its breathtaking stunts. He hangs out of the bus in free flight, his trouser legs flapping in the wind, hooking himself on the window with his hand with the change between his fingers.
They are all part of a unique urban culture and a very informal service industry. There are no official prices or stops, not even an official line map that passengers could use to orient themselves.
Nevertheless, the city’s 130 or so lines function amazingly well. The government has never been able to create a functioning transport network for the general public, and private providers have jumped into this gap since the 1950s. Over the years, minibuses were joined by large ones with more than 30 seats; the matatus became more and more elaborately decorated.
From humble beginnings, the matatu business has grown into a powerful industry; with an estimated turnover of almost two billion euros. It employs up to 350 000 people. 80 000 matatus criss-cross the country, up to 40 000 buses are said to be in Nairobi alone. Only one in five Nairobi residents has a car; 70 percent use matatus daily.
Here we go!“ Benarnd shouts. The driver presses the horn, it makes a sound as if a fairground ride is about to take off, and Mixtape drives off. Passers-by stare, young men cling to the doors and windows of the bus from the outside. When it stops, they jump off and do a short dance routine. The bus enters the long road that runs along the Nairobi National Park towards the city centre; a pack of brush-eared pigs flees squealing into the embankment. Benarnd holds onto the outside of the bus, his head jerking to the beat as he flirts with a passenger through the window. In his job, he said, you experience something new every day. The latest rumours, the latest looks, the latest slang, you live on the pulse of a city that reinvents itself every moment.
One day, he had said, he would buy himself a manyanga, the most beautiful and ostentatious of all. It would bear his likeness on the stern and be named like him: little man. Benarnd bends his head through the window to say something in the ear of the pretty passenger. He uses a language that is about to transform the whole country: Sheng.
To understand what Sheng means for Kenya, you have to leave the route of Mixtape for a moment. The motorbike taxi speeds along one of Rongai’s earth roads, past corrugated iron huts, the Governor s Butchery and the Holy Hairdresser, until it reaches a bucolic spot on the edge of the forest. This is where actor, comedian, screenwriter and director Fred Omondi, 37, known to his fans as Freddie Budaboss, lives and works. When Budaboss announced a few years ago that he would start a political satire programme on Sheng, many declared him crazy. In the meantime, he has not only won prizes with it, but also many fans.
Sheng is a very new language that emerged in the slums of Nairobi. „People from all parts of the country moved to the city at that time,“ Budaboss tells us. „They lived close on close, with grandma and great-grandma. The boys needed a language that their parents didn’t understand. So they created Sheng.“
Today, Sheng is like a DJ’s record collection, sampling everything that is Kenya: Kiswahili, English, Kenyan and non-Kenyan languages. Sheng is constantly evolving. New words, a new twist are constantly being added. The former secret language of the youth has meanwhile begun its national triumphal procession. „No big company can do without an advertising slogan in Sheng any more,“ says Freddie Budaboss. „Even politicians try to speak a little Sheng to reach young voters.“
At the same time, Sheng is still frowned upon. „In school, children are taught not to speak Sheng or local dialects,“ Budaboss tells me. „You will be punished if you don’t. They hang a sign on you: Speak English! Speak Kiswahili!“
One of Budaboss‘ assistants says that Sheng speakers in her school have a smelly dog bone hung around their necks to humiliate them. Language policy is an extremely sensitive issue in Kenya. Kenya is a multi-ethnic country where around 70 languages are spoken.
Often, language defines a person’s belonging to an ethnic group. Thus, the spoken word becomes a decisive political category. Most Kenyans vote along ethnic lines; if a candidate comes to power, he tries to serve the members of his clan. The winner sits at the meat pots, or, as the people of Kenya put it, „Now is our time to eat.“
„The Tribe and the Bribe are the Siamese twins of Kenyan Politics,“ sighs the famous Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo: tribalism and corruption are inextricably linked. Anger over exclusion has often led to bloody ethnic conflicts in the country’s history.
Paradoxically, tribalism is a consequence of colonial rule. Even before the colonial era, there were sometimes ethnic tensions, but many of the tribes lived together peacefully, intermarrying. The British colonial rulers sought to separate them: Divide and rule. Each people was given its own reservation, all subjects were only allowed to organise politically within their ethnic group. When the country became independent in 1963, political organisation along ethnic lines had long since prevailed. To prevent the country from disintegrating, the government is pushing for the use of the official languages English and Kiswahili. In urban schools, only Kiswahili and English are to be used.
Today, it is rather the older people who identify with their ethnic group. Many younger people see themselves first and foremost as Kenyans, marry more often across tribal boundaries, and share a common language and culture with Sheng.
For Sheng to spread so quickly, it needed a means of transport. „Without the matatus, Sheng would never have popularised so quickly,“ says Freddie Budaboss. „For a long time, they were the only place a young Kenyan could find youth culture.“
Matatus have become a social space full of codes and rituals. No matter where a youth comes from, and how poor his parents may be, in the matatu he can gain respect. What matters is how one presents and dresses, how one speaks. Young people often hear the latest sheng phrases in matatu, in the songs of rappers, in conversation with their makanga. Together they create a new language – and the whole country listens.
In the cab of Mixtape, Daniel Gitau, 40, bobs to the beat as he performs a daring overtaking manoeuvre with one hand, the other casually hanging out of the window. In a flash, he squeezes the bus into a gap that suddenly opens up between two cars, just inches past the number plate of a Volkswagen. Matatu drivers are also called pilots, that’s how fast they fly through Nairobi’s traffic.
Gitau is a quiet guy, family man type, which doesn’t stop him from driving like hell: time is money. Each matatu has a daily destination, depending on its size and equipment. The owner of Mixtape demands 15 000 KES, just under 130 euros, from Daniel and Benarnd every evening. After deducting fuel costs and bribes for the police, the two earn an average of 2000 KES daily, the equivalent of just under 17 euros per person. That is not a bad income in a country where the average monthly wage is about 140 euros.
The driver takes a look at the screen that transmits the situation in the passenger compartment. Depending on the composition of the passengers, he will adjust his music selection; the pilot is also the DJ. Tapping along to the beat on the steering wheel, he speeds past a settlement of hobbithy single-family homes, Mixtape climbing a hill.
Behind him, the city spreads out under heavy storm clouds like an African Gotham. 6.5 million inhabitants live in the metropolitan region of Nairobi; promise, Moloch, Melting Pot. City of enchanted parks and legendary clubs, gigantic slums and British-style park mansions, Indian temples and Anglican churches. A few years ago, crime was so prevalent here that it was called Nairobbery, city of crime. Today it is considered „Silicon Savannah“, home to young entrepreneurs, techies and artists who develop apps for the whole continent, one of the most dynamic cities in Africa.
The entrepreneur is celebrated here, street vendors have an amazing density of book titles dedicated to increasing wealth on offer. If that doesn’t help you, you can turn to one of the faith healers whose slips of paper are stuck to trees and street lamps everywhere: „Dr Eru. Lost lovers. Lost objects. Family matters. Marriage. Wealth. Better business. Manhood.“
Unfortunately, Nairobi is also the city of notorious traffic jams. Daniel Gitau navigates through one when he finally reaches the city centre. He steers the bus past fantastic modernist buildings built at the time of independence in anticipation of a golden future. At that time, Africa, not Asia, was considered the continent of the upswing; however, the economic miracle would not happen for the vast majority. They do not get much out of annual growth rates of almost six percent.
Gitau now turns into the long driveway that loops around in front of the railway station. One matatu jams up here next to and behind the other. A wheezing tangle of metal. The stench of cheap diesel almost takes your breath away. Behind the woman-friendly matatu Minerva („Respect the ladies who make the babies“), the bus „I am a boss“ creeps along, adorned with the portrait of a fur-clad gangster wearing rhinestone glasses.
The more imaginative the painting, the better the business, and of course there are also specialists for this: they earn their money with „pimpin'“, with the art of transforming a simple bus into a colourful manyanga.
The grand master of „pimpin'“ stands in front of a Matatu in a garage on an industrial estate in the Eastleigh district and pulls the trigger. Orange paint pours out of the airbrush sprayer over the bus, which is transformed layer by layer into a work of art. The subject is the new Netflix series „House of Money“.
Grandmaster „Moha“, real name Mohamed Kartarchand Bagatiram Rala Ram, 42, looks like a character from a series himself. Each of his teeth is silver-plated, he wears thick rings, silver chains and a watch on each wrist. His eyes are warm, one forehead is emblazoned with a dark mark, the kind devout Muslims get from praying so much. „Work,“ Moha says, „is my prayer.“
Moha understands something about the power of transformation. He was 13 when he became an orphan and had to take care of himself and his sisters. Washed cars, swept floors, worked as a makanga. „I was weak, I was pushed around.“ He failed in his job as a paint salesman, but at least his boss noticed the drawings he scribbled in his sales book and advised him to make something of his talent.
He hired on at a garage. „Before, Matatus only had labels like Lewis or a number plate on it,“ Moha says. „On the internet, I saw graffiti from the US and Europe. I decided to copy that.“ In the late 1990s, he started spraying graffiti on matatus and caused a sensation. Soon one job followed the next.
„Together with the owner, we decide on a theme,“ says Moha.“ We choose something that is in the air at the moment, football, music, cinema. A matatu is like a newspaper. Whatever you see on it is trending right now.“ Moha builds spoilers and superstructures – the so-called bodybuilding – sprays sheet metal and windows, designs the interior of the bus, installs the technology for video and audio. Pimping a manyanga can cost up to 1.5 million KES, about 13 000 euros. „The guys who invest in matatus do it mainly for the show.“ Kenyans love competition, Moha says. „And matatus are an industry where competitive ambition is taken to the extreme.“
Mixtape arrived at the station. In a square of trampled red earth, matatu riders sit under a tree on their break, scarfing down paper-wrapped rice dishes. It is a place where rumours fly back and forth, where news spreads in seconds. Drivers, conductors, owners put their heads together. Passengers hurry past, heavily packed, scroungers and day labourers make their rounds, stranded people lie – gazing blankly into the distance – under acacia trees. Miracle healers extol their services, acrobats perform feats and itinerant preachers deliver their sermons. One demonises the Freemasons; one of his posters features Rihanna and – for whatever reason – Hillary Clinton.
Walking through the hustle and bustle is Lewis Kiragu, 32, a slim guy with a silver tooth whom every driver here knows. Lewis is the master of beats. He sells USB sticks with music videos to the drivers. He charges the equivalent of 17 euros for an exclusive mix. After two days, most of the Manyangas‘ drivers want new stuff. „No self-respecting person would use the same compilation for more than four days.“ Sometimes Lewis gets visits from Kenyan bands who buy him a drink to play their videos. The Matatus are an important distribution channel for them. „People don’t listen to the radio here. The matatu is where people go to see the latest videos.“
Mixtape is jolting out of the station driveway when suddenly a traffic policeman jumps in front of the bus: the bus, he claims, was going too slowly. Now everything happens in a flash. Benarnd jumps out of the bus to settle the matter. Then, while the bus is stuck in a traffic jam, he sprints to the next station to get back on. Daniel Gitau grins, „everything under control“. About five times a day, Mixtape is stopped by policemen. One matatu, they say, feeds an average of ten people: Owners, drivers, conductors, but also policemen and municipal officials.
The new rules on speed limits, music volume, decoration? Daniel waves them off. „We pay the police. And carry on as before.“
Carlos Ruvaga, 41, plops down on one of the wobbly chairs in the station restaurant. He is a heavy man with lush silver chains, he too wears the apparently inevitable silver tooth. Ruvaga is always careful to sit facing the door. „Anything can happen at any time.“ Perhaps that is not even an exaggeration. For as „Sacco Manager“ he has to deal with very special business partners. Saccos are the names of the cooperatives to which the bus owners of a route have joined together. Ruvaga is responsible for the 52 buses on the Ongata line to Rongai, and thus also for Mixtape.
Whenever there is a problem – accidents, fires, repairs, engine problems, gangsters, attempted murders – Ruvaga’s phone rings. He also collects the bus owners‘ share every day.
In 2010, the state had urged bus owners to form cooperatives to curb crime. „Earlier,“ Ruvaga tells us, „the cartels controlled the bus business. They were like octopuses.“ Cartels are criminal organisations. The so-called Mungiki had secured the bus business, an extremely brutal gang of thugs who were once recognised by their long dreadlocks – many have since shaved them off. They began as an ethnic militia of the Kikuyu, the politically dominant ethnic group in Kenya, who beat and killed all those they reviled as ethnic enemies. The International Criminal Court in The Hague believes they were paid by the government at least some of the time.
The Mungiki turned into a mafia, taking over the matatu business, among other things. Only those who paid them protection money were safe. „They were notorious for cutting off the heads of their opponents,“ Ruvaga recounts.
The Saccos were supposed to push the Mungiki out of the transport business. „But some of the people who had previously worked for the cartels now hired on with the Saccos,“ Ruvaga says. „They knew something about the business, after all.“ He drops his broad hand on the formica tabletop. „Same forest, same monkeys.“ When some of them were later fired by the Saccos, they formed their own cartel. „They work as mediators between bus owners and the police,“ Ruvaga explains. Mediator means: the mungiki deliver the corruption money. Ruvaga does not want to go into too much detail. „This is dangerous. They may not be as brutal as they used to be, but they work with extortion.“
That corruption is a tricky business, Ruvaga knows from his own experience. He owns two matatus and knows that owners will do anything to avoid their bus being directed to the police station for an offence and the case ending up in court. So Ruvaga pays when the driver and conductor tell him that this danger is imminent. „But you never really know if it is true. If the driver and the mananga are conspiring to rip you off,“ Carlos says, and again his flat hand lands on the tabletop so hard it trembles, „then you can’t know.“
The job of traffic cop is the most popular in Kenyan policing because it is so lucrative, says Freddie Budaboss.
Again and again, the government has vowed to regulate the matatu sector, but many politicians, parliamentarians and police officers have invested in this very sector. A matatu can also be an excellent election campaign machine. Mike Sonko, the just arrested governor of Nairobi on corruption charges, once became famous for his dazzling manangas, only they brought him popularity and the needed votes. Incidentally, Sonko is not his real surname; his real name is Mbuvi Gidion Kioko. Sonko is the Sheng word for: rich man.
Because of all things, those who are supposed to supervise the Matatu sector also earn from it, regulation fails. Or, as a former transport minister said: „I own a matatu myself. I can’t shoot myself in the foot after all.
„Matatus are what we are,“ says artist Dennis Muraguri. They reflect society’s joie de vivre, competitive spirit and creativity, but also its corruptibility and chauvinism. Actor Freddie Budaboss loves matatus – but he wouldn’t let his two children ride them. „There, from an early age, they get the unconscious message every day: it’s okay to break rules. You can get away with it. We have propagated a culture of wealth at any cost.“
According to a study by Aga Khan University, one in two young Kenyans think it doesn’t matter how you get money as long as it doesn’t land you in jail. Only 40 per cent think people should pay taxes. And while almost everyone appreciates democracy, 62 percent are open to vote buying, 40 percent would only vote for a candidate who gave them money or gifts.
Evening has fallen on the station square. Musicians have replaced the conspiracy theorists. Passers-by clap and sing along. The drivers turn on the lights of their buses. Like sparkling spaceships, the matatus rush through the night.
Currently, a modern local transport system is being built in Nairobi. Experts like the American scientist Jacqueline Klopp, however, do not believe that it will transport the majority of passengers in the future, „because the government is responsible for that, since it has always failed to build a functioning transport network.“
Klopp has more faith in the creatives, the techies and reformers who are preparing to digitise payment and electrify the buses. She and fellow campaigners have already created a digital map of the Matatu network using passengers‘ mobile phone signals; that’s how they’re trying to improve it.
Perhaps electric buses will soon be whizzing through the city, fully digitalised and trimmed for efficiency – but one thing seems certain: even these matatus will never be silent.
Published in Geo 02/2020, translated by deepl