For many Kenyans, shared matatu vans are a lifeline for getting around Nairobi.
Often hard to miss, with their trendy artistic designs, bright colorful lights, and blaring local music, the vans represent a powerful form of expression for urban youth.
No two rides are alike, and one man is on a mission to document them all.
This week’s ‘Inside Africa’ invites viewers for a ride on Nairobi’s hip method of transportation, witnessing how the galleries on wheels come to life.
Nairobi is one of Africa’s largest cities, and is constantly growing. With a population of more than three million, getting from one place to another can quickly become a challenge, with traffic a major problem.
Matatus are privately owned and are smaller, quicker than city-run buses. There are tens of thousands of them driving around the streets of Nairobi, offering cheap rides to Nairobi’s citizens, often less than a dollar to go anywhere.
The matatus are bright, colourful and often loud, with blaring music, ensuring they’re all unique. Not everyone loves them however – some say they go too fast, and that they’re reckless.
‘Inside Africa’ reports that others, like Brian Wanyama, founder of Matwana Matatu Culture, love the experience.
Wanyama rides the shared vans every day, and he tells the programme how he views them as canvasses; moving art that reflects Nairobi’s urban youth culture: “It’s a museum on wheels. It has art, stickers, airbrushing.”
Across the city, watatus feature international pop stars, hip-hop artists, athletes, social and political icons, even religions. Wanyama tells ‘Inside Africa’: “Matatus are the number one platform to promote local artists and urban youth culture…they’re used as a platform to promote upcoming artists.”
‘Inside Africa’ reveals that it wasn’t always like this, however. Just over a decade ago, the government banned matatu art, a ban which was meant to promote safety and keep vehicles’ windshields clear of graffiti.
When it was lifted in 2015, creative designs surged, but some like Wanyama fear a ban could return, or that modern buses will replace smaller vans. ‘Inside Africa’ reports that this is why he and a friend started Matwana Matutu Culture, a non-profit group that documents matatu art.
He tells the programme: “It’s important to document it because we need to see where it came from. Also, the matatu culture needs to have a sense of belonging. If we do nothing about it, it might really come to an end – the matatu culture as a whole.”
25-year-old Wanyama sees matatus as moving art, a place to listen to music, and ultimately a symbol of Nairobi’s urban youth culture.
As iconic as they are, he worries they won’t be around forever, telling ‘Inside Africa’: “I’d be really upset because even growing up, matatus have always been a key in my memory.”
To preserver such memories, Wanyama travels around Nairobi, taking pictures of the matatus, documenting them, focusing on the drivers, conductors, the art, even the art of making them.
The programme heads to an industrial area of Nairobi, where Wanyama meets many people ‘pimping’ and customising matatus.
There, Pal Choda and his son Ricky who run Choda Fabricators explain to ‘Inside Africa’ that they make matatus not by machine, but by hand: “It’s customized building of the entire process. There’s nothing done with prefabricated parts. It’s done more or less manually, nothing automatic.”
Wanyama tells the programme: “I see art. I don’t see cars. When you come here, you get to see artistry.”
Like any real art, building matatus by hand takes time – 45 days to just make one. They are moving art galleries, each one uniquely decorated , adorned with graffiti and hand-painted portraits.
Wanyama chooses matatus based on the art, which he sees as a vibrant and much-needed form of expression, especially for young Kenyans. He tells ‘Inside Africa’: “When you see the matatus and the art, you really understand Nairobi. Because Nairobi is a city that is run by the youth. Through these ventures they do, it creates a platform where the youth really get a chance to express themselves.”
Concluding ‘Inside Africa’, Wanyama opens up on why he feels so passionate about ensuring matatu culture is captured for future generations: “My goal is to preserve this industry. Without it, we wouldn’t have a way of expressing ourselves. Experiencing that unique ride, wherever I go. Matatu culture is very important to our lives here in Kenya.”
(‘Inside Africa’ aired Friday 21 October at 1930 EAT on CNN International with repeats scheduled for Saturday 22 October at 0530 EAT; 1330 EAT and 2030 EAT; Sunday 23 October at 0630 EAT and Tuesday 25 October at 1130 EAT)