How to ride a Kenyan Matatu

A matatu is a popular, cheap way for Kenyans to get around. The cost of riding a matatu is almost always under 100 Kenyan Shillings or $1. Most often the matatu is an old, modded van with seats for up to 15 people (although I rode with 17 others once).

A normal matatu is rickety at best. But sometimes they have excellent sounds systems. The paint job can be a work of art, including forged images of popular rappers, athletes, religious figures, and brands.

If you find yourself in Kenya, you need to ride like the locals and try a matatu. Here’s how:

1. Know where you want to go.

Each matatu has a route. If you were a local, you could read the back of the matatu where the route is written. It will say a local name followed by Sacco. If you’re new to the area, you need to talk to the conductor, the assertive young man who whistling, yelling, and pounding on the matatu to get it filled with riders.

He will tell you just about anything to get you to board. Make sure you understand where you should get off to get to your final destination.

2. Have small change available.

You don’t pay until your en route. Hand the conductor a small bill no larger than 200 Kenya Shilling. Anything larger and you are at best going to get a pocket full of change and at worst gouged. Be prepared to be handed money back at any time as the conductor gets change from other passengers. You could ask the cost of the ride beforehand, but I like to be surprised since you always feel like you are getting a deal.

3. Have a sense for when you are going to get out.

Moving around the tightly packed space is a pain. You have to get real comfortable with your neighbors. It’s best that you stay to the front of the matatu if you are likely to exit early. Head to the back if you are traveling to the end station.

4. Pay attention to your belongings.

I haven’t had anything stolen, but one day I was looking at my phone when my well-dressed neighbor told me to keep my phone away from the window. Thieves are known to snag items from outside the matatu when they get a chance.

Lastly, a word of warning. Matatu drivers are notoriously reckless. They enjoy driving at high speeds in dense traffic. Honestly, It’s part of the thrill, but you may want to consider where you will be driving. In town surface streets feel much safer than two lane highways out of town. Stay safe and ride like the locals!

May. 08 2017