Boda Bodas, Matatus, and Pedestrians

Getting around in Nairobi is a constant adventure. It is anything but boring. For the first few days we were overwhelmed by the constant swirl of activity surrounding us as we toured through the city. Traffic laws are less rules and more of (un-followed) suggestions. Cars, pedestrians, boda-bodas (motorcycles), matatus (buses) and even sometimes cows, goats, and pigs all inhabit a single road. Each one weaves in and out around each other, striving to get to their destinations quickly. Dust prevails, as most of the roads are unpaved. The sometimes-uneven road makes the bus bounce up and down and the sounds of car horns dominate the soundscape as each driver struggle to get ahead.

Our journeys generally begin with a walk, either to our destination or to the next matatu stop. We walk along the dirt pathway next to the road, walking past scores of stands selling tons of different items, including fruits and vegetables, roasting meat, clothes and shoes.

Besides walking, our main form of transportation is a matatu. (Uber also exists here, but in the word’s of our dear friend Hank, “that’s mzungu shit”.)  Matatus are buses that are the most common form of travel for most people in Nairobi. They range from seating 15 to 40 people (although the number of people in the matatu almost always significantly outnumbers the number of seats). The prices can range from the equivalent to 0.20 to 0.70 dollars depending on the distance and the time of day. The smaller matatus, the ones we usually take to work and around Eastland, are usually fairly plain besides the crazy driving. However, the bigger matatus are incredibly lively both in décor and ambiance. Each one has a different theme and is decorated accordingly. Every available space inside and outside the bus is covered in pictures depicting the theme. So far we have road in matatus with basketball players and teams, rappers, The Dallas Mavericks, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Tupac themes. In addition to the décor, they constantly blast loud music that usually consists of rap with English and Swahili words intermingled. Some of them even have large screens in the front of the bus that show music videos.

Riding in a matatu fluctuates from driving around like crazy, swerving to avoid pedestrians and fellow road goers, to sitting in a complete standstill in traffic for minutes at a time. When we are moving, every matatu tries to get ahead using any method possible, no matter if it is driving up on the curb or driving on the wrong side of the street. Yesterday, a different matatu even hit the one we were in! (But on the plus side, since the traffic is so slow, we generally don’t get up to a speed where they can be really dangerous).

However, during those times when traffic is at a standstill, our Kenyan friends like Cha Cha, Mokaya, and Jonathan tell us about the history and future of infrastructure in Nairobi. A few years ago, there were very few cars on the road because only the affluent could afford them. However, now that more people own cars, there’s a huge traffic problem in the city. (Although it’s amazing that anyone owns cars here as they can cost anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 US dollars because there are no manufacturers in Kenya and there is a hefty tax on them that virtually doubles the price. But our friends also told us that there are many roads currently being built and that when we visit Kenya again in a few years, that we wouldn’t even recognize the place because there would be so many more roads. What they told me was apparent in the numerous construction sites all around the city.

Yet despite all the craziness of travelling in Nairobi, we’re starting to get the hang of it. We are finally getting in the habit of looking the correct way before crossing the street (they drive on the opposite side of the road here) and today we for the first time we road the matatu to the gym all by ourselves. We even made sure they didn’t over charge us because we’re tourists; we tell them “bao!” which means twenty Kenyan shillings to let them know that we know the going rate for a short ride in the matatu. Every day of traveling through this city is a new adventure, and every day we’re learning how to navigate our way around more and more.

–Sierra Fisher