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NAIROBI — What if the New York City subway disappeared tomorrow? This is the situation facing Kenyan commuters. The government has proposed a law to phase out the vans used by privately run transportation services in favor of smaller taxis and larger buses. And the operators of those classic 14-seaters, the matatus, are threatening a massive general strike across the country next week.
The attempt at regulation looks like sour grapes from a state that was too late to the transportation game. And abolishing the matatu system, a network both comprehensive and affordable, would hurt the Kenyan commuter-consumer. Here, as across much of the continent, matatus are the primary means of conveyance for millions of Africans with minimal income.
Matatus are both notoriously reckless and completely indispensable. The word “ma tatu” — “for three” in Swahili and referring to shillings — comes from the price it cost to travel Kenya’s roads in the 1950s. The minibuses log hundreds of miles per day, along informally agreed-upon routes, on no set schedule and for negotiable fares. In Uganda, they’re also called “matatus”; in Nigeria, they’re “danfos”; in Tanzania, “dala-dalas.”
On pocked roads and in traffic jams, the best that can be said of matatus is that they work. In the right frame of mind, however, they are charming. Many have flamboyant décors: loud paint and prayer beads, louder reggae music, even backseat television screens. “Follow us on Twitter,” read one in Nairobi.
In some Kenyan towns, the official state-run buses roll by like staid battleships; in most, there is no centralized system for moving people. Matatus fill the gap. Few hard statistics exist on the scope of the sector, but 10 years ago there were 24,000 matatus in Kenya. The industry has boomed since then: matatu owners and their allies claim that today 500,000 jobs are directly or indirectly associated with the massive private endeavor.
Most Kenyans regard matatus as an imperative public service and a showcase for local culture. “The experience is the African roller coaster — you have fear, you have hope, you have joy,” said Tim Rimbui, a producer for Ma3, an Afro-pop band inspired by the mishmash of conversations in matatus. “It is exhilarating.” Ephraim Maina, a member of Parliament, says of the proposed phase-out: “It is like saying that by the end of this month, everybody should stop breathing.” He may sound hyperbolic, but he is right.
Yet other Kenyan legislators, specifically the Kenyan minister of transport, Amos Kimunya, wants them gone. He contends they are unsafe and a public nuisance. Matatus do consistently operate beyond the law. They careen off road, hugging the shoulder and powering past stalled cars. Their drivers have perfected the rolling stop: passengers hop on or off while the van is still in motion. Of course, there are no seatbelts.
The self-regulating sector has come back at the government swinging, promising in a statement last month “the mother of all strikes” and “a case study for generations to come.” I shudder to think what that would look like. Actually, we already know: Kenya got a brief preview in 2010, when a two-day strike to protest harassment by opportunistic police forced commuters to walk to work. The government buckled. Plans for this proposed phase-out should be abandoned. Hulking megabuses are too large for city traffic, and their fare is nearly twice as much as the matatus’. The closest affordable option to the vans — motorbike taxis — is less efficient, more dangerous and, in Kenya, already outlawed.
The safety concerns that ostensibly motivated the proposed law can be handled with more effective infrastructure: wider, better roads and pedestrian barriers to prevent the wild sidewalk-driving the matatus are known for.
What’s more, buses are just far less forgiving. Last week, I waited to ride to downtown Nairobi from the residential neighborhood of Kilimani on the number 46 transit route. Because I wasn’t at an official stop, a hulking Kenya Bus Service vehicle blew by me, its driver shrugging at my unsanctioned flag-down.
Bringing up his rear, however, was a matatu. And that driver was happy to throw open his sliding door.