Here is why matatus are to Kenya what Motown is to American music: Young passengers scramble to fill a 33-seater matatu and, within minutes, it is off to its destination. It is a new matatu, dubbed ‘Porsche’, and the young commuters do not mind paying way above the normal fare of Ksh80.

“This is the new game in town and everyone has to keep up or tap out,” shouts a young man, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘Yeezus’ and ripped-up jeans. The ‘new game in town’ means having several LCD screens, a more enhanced lighting system (akin to that of a discothèque) and shiny rims that spin dizzyingly as the matatu moves. The driver is an unassuming young man.

Graffiti wars

Effectively, his words are a declaration of the new matatu trend on the route. Waiting in line are other matatus with names such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, West Coast, Cash Money Brothers, Rich Gang, Taylor Gang, Bad Ass, Sense 8, Tapout, Fubu, Calvin Klein and Lexus, among others. Most of them have dollar signs, pictures of American rappers and designers splashed on their sides in graffiti. Inside is no different, but there are additions like TV screens and huge music systems.

You will be forgiven for thinking that matatus are mobile discothèques. In a way they are – some have loud music booming, especially when there are no police around.

A look at the minibuses also indicates that Kenya is not short of talent, especially in the area of graffiti art, and that most young people keep up with what is trending in the rest of the world. Each minibus is named in accordance with the latest happenings in the global entertainment scene and pop culture. By doing so, the owner hopes to attract a certain kind of passenger, mostly the youth.

It is a common belief that drivers of such minibuses are streetwise and they are famous for knowing all the back roads, especially during rush hour.

It is easy to tell which matatu is a present favourite: It takes less than eight minutes to have scrambling passengers fill a pimped-up matatu, while it can take as long as an hour for a matatu without the trimmings to get commuters, even though they charge less.

Fashion trendsetters

In towns like Nairobi, matatu owners and crew go to great lengths to set fashion and graffiti trends. To a keen eye, a look at the matatus plying various routes in Nairobi would reveal a battle akin to that of rap music in the US.

This battle was revealed when American musician Trey Songz visited Kenya for a Coke Studio recording gig and used a matatu to take a tour of the west side of Nairobi. The matatu he used has become the talk of the town and youthful commuters have no problem paying more than the usual Sh70 to board the vehicle.

In a way, the minibuses also represent the rebellious nature of the young generation. There are no existing transport safety laws that some of the matatu drivers have not broken or look forward to breaking. For example, the law stipulates that no passenger may stand in a minibus, but it is not uncommon to see a cramped matatu. The more rules a matatu breaks, the more endearing it is to young commuters and the matatu crew.

In addition to the graffiti, some matatus have water dispensers, helmets, hanging basketballs or designer shoes just to show who is ‘bad’ on the streets. When a trend starts in the matatus, it is sure to catch up with the majority of young commuters in Kenya’s towns.

Equally, one does not need to look far to discover who is regarded as the hottest DJ in Kenya and internationally, because the music blaring from the speakers will tell you quite clearly. The same applies to musicians and Kenyan musicians are often keen to have their music playing in a matatu.

“When I want to know the latest music, I just board three different matatus in a week and I get the idea,” says Sandra Kamau, a commuter in the east of Nairobi.

Ghetto vs suburbs

The minibuses are also a symbol of class and the general view of life. For example, those plying the east side of Nairobi tend to have more of a ‘rough and gangster’ feel. In the Kenyan reality, the area known as Eastlands has some of the largest ghettos in Nairobi and houses a majority of unemployed youth looking for some sort of inspiration. The conductors or touts on these routes are also perceived to be rougher and some are even adorned with tattoos, a culture that is fast picking up in Nairobi.

In the southside of Nairobi, where there is a large middle class, the graffiti is more subdued. It was not uncommon to see a conductor adorned with earrings and platted hair when it was a trend in the early 2000s.

When it comes to language, matatu crews have been some of the biggest creators of ‘Sheng’, a language that combines English and different Kenyan languages. One is often considered backward if you don’t speak or understand the language. Like fashion, most young Kenyans have to work to keep up with the trend.

“Sheng, like fashion, changes so fast that you have to be keen or you will look out of sync with your peers,” says a young commuter who identifies himself as Lil James.

The influence of matatus is not lost on business people, especially on telecom companies and radio station owners. Most of the pimped-up matatus have free WiFi and telecom companies scramble to give them the best deals in town. Radio-station owners also have special shout-out segments for matatu drivers.

“If I like a radio station, I will tune into it every day, so my passengers will also know about it,” says James Otieno, a driver on route 33, east of Nairobi.

The cost of pimping a matatu

The matatu industry is influential because it is one of the local sectors supporting the economy and also because matatu owners are a key bloc in politics. While it is not possible to be exact about the money involved, here is a breakdown of what it takes to have a 22-seater ‘nganya’ (a new, pimped-up matatu) on the road. The chassis goes for about Ksh22 million. Then there is the body, whose value ranges depending on the body builder. The cost of the artwork will range, depending on the graffiti artist involved. It can cost anywhere between Sh100,000 and Sh250,000.

There is also the tinting of the windows, even though it is illegal, the installation of a music system, which can cost anywhere between Ksh100,000 and Sh500,000. There are also the rims and the seats to factor into the cost – some owners go so far as having leather systems. In short, getting one pimped-up matatu on the road creates employment for over 10 people, and this does not include the driver, conductor, route managers and a certain group of vigilantes that must be paid, no matter what…