Mbugua gives meaning of a matatu world in new book

   By Jennifer Muchiri

The matatu industry is often the butt of many a Kenyan’s ire. Few Kenyans ever give the matatu serious thought. Indeed, matatus are what we consider a necessary evil in our society; any interaction with them is bound to cause us a headache yet we cannot do without them.

It, therefore, comes as a pleasant surprise that Mbugua wa Mungai has written a book, a 250-page volume, on the matatu world. Nairobi’s Matatu Men (Contact Zones, 2013) is dedicated to an understanding of the matatu industry, particularly in Nairobi, as a distinct sub-culture. Mbugua wa Mungai is a literary scholar, the head of the Literature Department at Kenyatta University.

For a member of the intellectual elite in Kenya to spend time and energy dissecting the minutest of details regarding the often loathed public transport system in Kenya is an indication that this facet of Kenyan society deserves a place in serious discourse about Kenya. Mbugua’s argument is that by riding in a matatu, one can begin to understand the Kenyan society because the matatu, in many ways, represents the reality of Kenyan life.

According to Mbugua, the matatu space is no respecter of age, social-economic status, gender, tribe or other such categories, as all these sections of society will be found sharing the same space. The matatu, in Mbugua’s opinion, is a kind of temporary community where passengers and crew can discuss all kinds of subjects and a temporarily ‘forced’ shared life.

Mbugua’s book looks at the matatu as an example of local entrepreneurial spirit, a performance of masculinity in public space and as a cultural world. He reads matatu signage as one of the strategies of the matatu crew’s self-expression. He takes interest in the designs on the bodies of these vehicles, their names and slogans and contends that these are signifiers of the crew’s identity and dreams. The book notes that matatus are also laden with interesting bumper stickers and printed with icons of figures from popular culture which their crew identify with.

 Noting that matatu crew are often young men, Mbugua uses the discussion on the matatu culture to examine the relationship between Kenyan youth and the state and to address the issue of class differences. Nairobi’s Matatu Men addresses itself to the behaviour of matatu crew, which Mbugua notes is largely male as very few women dare to venture into this occupation. He observes that matatu men’s language is often vulgar and sexist and argues that their behaviour, which is characterised by aggression, is a form of sub-cultural performance. He examines the culture of transgression, both verbal and physical, which the matatu men have made part of their trade.

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 He notes that commuters have to often suffer violence at the hands of matatu men both in terms of manhandling and aggressive driving which violates traffic rules hence putting passengers’ lives in danger. He looks at the matatu crew’s belief that they can get away with breaking the rules since there is nothing the passengers or police officers can do; the passengers are intimidated, the police officers compromised. Mbugua says that matatu men portray themselves as victims of the insensitivity of the state and therefore project their transgressions as a form of empowerment and a strategy to mock those in power.

Mbugua’s book analyses the relationship between matatu drivers and other road users especially motorists. He observes that matatu crew see their occupation as a field of affirming their masculine identity and to contest others’ claim to the road. Arguing that studying the matatu men’s behaviour one can understand gender relations among Kenyans, Mbugua notes that these men often direct their belligerence to female motorists whom they see as encroaching on what is presumably a male public space. In addition, they are often infuriated by male motorists driving better private vehicles because they imagine that such men view the matatu crew as underachievers.  In addition to discussing the characteristics of matatu men, Mbugua explains the philosophy behind the zoning regulations in Nairobi.

 Mbugua’s book is made interesting by the various anecdotes about his experiences in matatus in Nairobi. Nairobi’s Matatu Men demonstrates that a study of Kenya’s matatu culture could lead to a better understanding of the Kenyan society in relation to sexuality and masculinity, economic stratification, contestations over public and political space, and the poor’s attempt to get to the public space.

It is for such reasons that one would conclude that this book is an invaluable addition to the archive on popular culture in Kenya.

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