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BellaOnline's African Culture Editor

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Riding on a Matatu

Guest Author - Jeanne Egbosiuba Ukwendu

Traveling in Kenya can be an adventure. The most widely used form of transportation is the matatu (known as a dala dala in Tanzania). Matatus are usually a pickup truck with a cap over the bed. There is a bench on both sides of the truck bed. Sometimes there is a pole mounted several inches down from the top of the ceiling (cap) for people to hang on to. Also, there is a door on the back of the bed of the truck that (usually) shuts. It wouldn't be such a bad ride if they only put twelve people in a matatu, but that's not the case, because in a matatu "There is always room for one more". The touts (people the driver/owner of the matatu pays to fill the vehicle with passengers) pack you in like sardines. It's incredible how many people you can fit into the back of a pickup truck. It's the Kenyan version of "How many people can you fit in a telephone booth?"

The seating order in a matatu is as follows:

First, the front seat next to the driver is taken. Two people can fit in this seat and is most definitely the best seat even if you are a bit squished which is nothing compared to being in the back. Sometimes the front seat is reserved. Especially if you are a western (white) female. I've had a front seat cleared for me more than once. You may pay a bit extra for the front seat.

Second, the back of the matatu is filled. And I mean filled! You can fit six people on each bench plus two or three people at the back end of the truck bed where there is usually a bench. Once the benches are filled people start sitting or standing (hunched over) on the floor in the center. Sitting/standing on the floor is illegal, everyone should be on a bench. What happens when a matatu driver spots a policeman (askari)? That in a little bit.

Lastly, the touts get on board. They try to squeeze into the already overcrowded matatu. They tell everyone to 'sit nice'. Many times they can't get into the matatu, so they hang out the back, or even sit on top along with the luggage! All of this being somewhat illegal.

If a policeman stops an overcrowded matatu the touts tell everyone to sit down. If you are one of the poor souls in the center without a seat you have to duck your head as low as possible. The touts get off the matatu to talk with the policeman. If you watch closely you'll see one of the touts hand a 'little chai' (a bribe) to the policeman.

There are two other type of matatus which are a bit nicer and roomier. There is the type which is more like a bus and the Nissan mini-van type. Everyone gets a seat although you may be squished in to it. Sometimes you may get charged more for these matatus, but usually not.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jeanne Egbosiuba Ukwendu. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jeanne Egbosiuba Ukwendu. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Dawn Denton for details.

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