Matatus are more than a mode of transport in Nairobi -- they're a form of expression
One man is documenting matatu culture to preserve it for future generations
Vibrant minibuses – known as matatus – fill the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, blaring music as they bounce and weave through traffic.
Each matatu is louder than the next, complete with graffiti-style artwork, custom designs, flashy lights and onboard entertainment to pull the crowds.
Cheap, convenient and sometimes a tad chaotic, matatus are the choice mode of transport for most Kenyans. But matatu culture may soon be under threat from government bans and alternative forms of public transport.
One man is on a quest to document Nairobi’s matatu culture before it disappears. Brian Wanyama believes these minibus taxis represent urban youth culture in Nairobi.
“It’s something that’s in our blood. No one can say they haven’t boarded a matatu,” he says.
Art on the move in Nairobi
Wanyama founded Matwana Matatu Culture to document these “museums on wheels” though his blog and social media platforms.
Matatus sport diverse designs featuring hip hop artists, international pop stars, athletes, political icons and even religion. Much like rolling local radio stations, these minibuses blast homegrown music promoting up-and-coming Kenyan artists.
“When you see the matatus and the art, you really understand Nairobi, because Nairobi is a city that is run by the youth,” explains Wanyama.
In order to beat competition and attract riders, matatu owners need to cough up a lot of money to ensure their minibuses are top class.
One of the hottest matatus in town is known as “The Flash.” This sleek vehicle has a slick paint job, free onboard WiFi and a flat screen television inside.
The construction and customization of a new vehicle can cost upwards of $20,000 as it is mostly done by hand.
Each matatu is built entirely from scratch, usually from the stripped chassis of a new truck. Fabricators then weld the skeletons and attach the panels. Once the blank canvas is ready, matatu artists embellish the vehicles with graffiti, hand-painted portraits and bold designs.
Wanyama takes pride in documenting the artwork and process of building and “pimping” Nairobi’s matatus.
“I see art. I don’t see cars,” he explains. “When you come here you get to see artistry.”
Snapshots of matatu culture
Wanyama captures and shares pictures of matatu artwork in Nairobi with his fan base. He considers his non-profit project to be a means of safeguarding matatu culture for future generations.
“My goal is to preserve this industry. Without it we wouldn’t have a way of expressing ourselves,” he says.
Just over a decade ago, the government banned matatu art and loud music from matatus for safety reasons. While the ban was lifted in 2015, Wanyama fears a similar ban could come back.
Wanyama also worries that modern buses might replace privately owned matatus, which would be bad for business.
“The matatu culture needs to have a sense of belonging,” he explains. “If we do nothing about it, it might really come to an end.”