Reading the City from the Streets

Kenda Mutongi. Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. 350 pp., US$ 30.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Norman Aselmeyer, European University Institute

In Nairobi, it is a hopeless task to guard oneself against the presence of matatus. These omnipresent minibuses roam the city day and night, catching everyone’s eye and ear when they show up. Susan Leigh Star’s often-cited assertion, that infrastructure is by definition invisible, does not apply to matatus.[1] In fact, the opposite is true. Matatus are loud, gleaming, brash, ruthless, impossible to avoid. But perspective matters. To the urban youth, they are the epitome of popular culture. Matatus blast out the latest hits, attract the cool crowds of Nairobi with their flamboyant paintings, the wit of their conductors, flat screens, and elaborate decorations in the interior. Some of the hip town folk frequent them just for entertainment. Yet not everyone rides in them because they want to, most people actually depend on them. Matatus are the arteries of Nairobi. They are so ubiquitous in the city that they have come to resemble the city itself.

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Cover of Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi

Matatus have stories to tell. When Mirjam de Brujin et al. stressed that “a bus is a microcosm of African life,” they referred to more than just a cliché. How crucial these small buses are to our understanding of urban life in postcolonial Kenya has now been revealed by Kenda Mutongi in her fascinating and deeply enjoyable book entitled Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi. The book is the result of many years of intensive research, travel, and interviews. As Mutongi writes in her introduction, no archival record exists for the matatu industry. Matatus are an African-owned informal business that emerged as a thriving industry after independence and became gradually regulated by the state. The lack of archival material turns out to be a fortunate circumstance, as it animated the author to write their story from the perspective of the streets. Mutongi talked to almost all groups involved – the matatu people (drivers, touts, conductors, owners), their representatives, politicians, and passengers (unfortunately not to the police men of Nairobi) – and became to be known as the “matatu professor” in the streets of the city. These interviews are the core of the book. Mutongi is at her best when she talks with her interviewees about political shams, violence, threats, torture, prosperity, or the sexist stickers often found in matatus. She makes these interviews so transparent in her writing that the reader literally hears and sees the people laugh, cheer, sob, and grumble.

Although Mutongi aims at showing how “ordinary Kenyans have managed to make their self-made matatus into a thriving and sustaining industry” (p. 12) her book goes far beyond that. In every chapter, she portrays how closely the minibuses and their history are enmeshed with the city and the country. Like related works on the history of infrastructure in Africa, the book uses urban transport as a tool to study society at large. That allows Mutongi to draw a nuanced picture of the East African nation during the second half of the twentieth century and covers aspects such as nation building and postcolonial racism, urbanization, social mobility and entrepreneurship, development aid, migration, political turmoil and ethnic nepotism, pop culture, and cosmopolitanism. Being at the heart of Kenya’s transport sector, matatus were always caught up in the political contests that have marked and shaped the country. And here as well, money mattered. Matatus became Kenya’s largest industry of which many wanted their share. The history of the industry is therefore more than a simple success story, it is also a history of “exploitation, crime, violence, and corruption” (p. 11). Especially the chapters dealing with the legacy of Kenya’s second president Daniel arap Moi highlight this “dark” side in the history of the matatu.

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A matatu bus (photo credit: Sylvia Costantini)

Nairobi’s inhabitants are unanimous when it comes to the city’s transport system and matatus in particular. An article written on the occasion of this year’s anniversary of the city’s foundation bemoans the situation of public transport in Nairobi: “In place of an organised transport system […] has emerged a nightmare of matatus.” These complaints are commonplace in Kenya’s newspapers. However, Kenda Mutongi reveals masterfully that there is a subcutaneous story to the everyday nuisance matatus pose on travelers and commuters. Throughout its history, matatus have not only been representations but also agents of social and political change in the country. In the era of the one-party state, matatus served as free spaces and sites of resistance to the Moi dictatorship. Accordingly, Mutongi sees the matatu industry as “vanguard of multiparty politics” (p. 158).

Road transport has democratized quick and long-distance mobility and contributed to mobile societies in the twentieth century. However, Mutongi shows that there is no uniform model to successful urban transport. The western convention of public transport, which is publicly organized and owned, did not prove suitable for Nairobi as it did not meet the needs and wants of the majority of passengers. Stressing the homegrown nature and flexibility of matatus, Mutongi resuscitates a narrative of Nairobi that Andrew Hake already made strong in the 1970s, namely describing Nairobi through the efforts of its inhabitants as a self-help city. Although the last chapter is entitled “Making it in Nairobi,” Mutongi knows that this story is not limited to Kenya alone. Since the mid-twentieth century, matatu-like transportation has become a global phenomenon, roaming the roads in many parts of the world. Called pesero in Mexico, tuk tuk in Indonesia, dala dala in Tanzania, tro tro in Ghana and so on, these forms of transport represent a triumph of ordinary men and women, who took the risks and created an industry that moves their city’s people, economies, and politics.

Bettina Ng’weno has recently observed that “To most Nairobi residents, there is no memory, no history, no yesterday and no home.” Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi fills this void and provides Nairobians with an intriguing and marvelously written history. Kenda Mutongi presents the story of the matatu with enthusiasm, narrative élan, and a balanced view of all actors involved. If there is a crisis in transport history, as Gijm Mom recently claimed, this book is the answer. Kenda Mutongi is a gifted historian, representing a new generation of Kenyan historians. At last, Bethwell Ogot, William Ochieng’, Atieno Odhiambo, Gideon Were, Godfrey Muriuki, and the other pioneers and doyens of Kenyan history have found a worthy successor in her.

 

Norman Aselmeyer is a PhD student at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on socio-spatial transformations related to the construction of the Uganda Railway (c. 1890–1914).

[1] Susan Leigh Star. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43.3 (1999), pp. 377–391, here p. 380.

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