Michuki rules put brakes on thriving matatu art culture

Mohamed Kartarchand, a graffiti artist, at his garage in Industrial Area, Nairobi. [David Njaaga,Standard]

“Transportation turned performance art: Nairobi’s matatu crews,” The New York Times titled its in-depth article on Nairobi’s vibrant and over-the-top matatu culture.

Over the years, long before the reporting by the New York Times, early this year, multiple Kenyan and international media, from The Standard to BBC and CNN, had highlighted Kenya’s unique matatu culture, one that has drawn enviable recognition and admiration from around the world.

Modern-day advertising is also capitalising on the matatu craze, often displaying adverts inside and on the exterior of matatus.

“This is a form of advertising that cuts across all economic classes because the same bus can drive through a variety of estates like Kileleshwa, Kilimani, Buruburu or Kibera,” Mr. Trushar Khetia of advertising firm Tria Group told The Standard in an earlier interview.

Global popularity

With the increased global popularity of the cult-like loud, colourful and sometimes lawless matatu industry, stars and entrepreneurs have been manufactured, like 40-year-old Mohamed Kartarchand.

More popularly known within the flamboyant matatu scene as Mohamed Ali or ‘Moha’, Kartarchand is somewhat of a celebrity.

In the past few years, just about every Kenyan news organisation has interviewed him. Moha has also been profiled by several international publications.

“Agencies like Pollman’s Tours and Safaris and Charlie’s Travels bring tourists here almost every two weeks to see how we transform normal boring cars into beautiful and lively matatus,” Moha told The Standard at his garage in Industrial Area, Nairobi.

He adds that after visiting his garage, the tourists visit the streets to see matatus in action.

Kartarchand describes having received multiple mesmerised guests over the years at his garage, Moha Grafix, majority of whom come because they have heard about the Kenyan matatu craze.

In some cases, as has happened several times during Moha’s career, he takes the culture to foreigners who cannot visit.

Moha has showcased his work in a few countries, from China to South Africa, the latter where he spent a week modifying a bus to fit the appearance of a Kenyan matatu.

But Moha does not do it just for the fame. Since 1999, Moha, a graphic designer and artist of many sorts, has been turning plain vehicles into exuberant moving art.

The most important thing to him, he says, is breathing life into public transport vehicles and by extension, the towns and cities in which they roam.

Yet now, Moha risks losing it all - an art he has perfected and a business he has toiled to build for nearly two decades, moving from a noisy set-up in Eastleigh to a larger and more presentable setting in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.

When The  Standard visited Moha at Moha Grafix, his expansive Industrial Area garage, 20 or so young men were busy at work, bringing matatus apart, before putting them back together.

In one section, a heavily graffiti-ed orange matatu was being readied for the removal of graffiti, in compliance with the return of ‘Michuki rules’. A few metres away, another matatu had been torn apart, leaving just the chassis.

“It basically means tearing the entire vehicle apart,” Moha says of the compliance to Michuki rules.

Seat belts, for instance, can only be installed after completely removing all the seats, while removing graffiti and tint from windows is essentially replacing the entire window.

In an enclosed workspace in the garage, LED lights are about to be removed from a minibus. “The lights cost over Sh50,000 to install,” Moha says.

Together with the graffiti on the car’s exterior body and the rear window, as well as the sound system, Moha says modifying the matatu cost the owner well over Sh100,000.

For another minibus nearby, rims have to be removed from the wheels, an estimated Sh45,000 loss for the owner.

The Michuki rules remind Moha of 2003, when the rules were first introduced by then Transport Minister John Michuki.

“It was very bad, I almost went out of business,” he says. And now, with the ban on extravagant matatu features like tint, graffiti, rims and lights, Moha faces the same risk.

“I am already feeling the effects. I had five clients lined up but when the notice on the rules was issued, the clients decided not to get the art,” Moha notes.

And while he worries about his fate, he is equally concerned about the future of the nearly 20 young men that work at Moha Grafix, which especially specializes in the banned features.

“The Government is basically telling these men that they will be out of jobs,” he notes,

“Hundreds of students come here to learn art, like graffiti and painting. Where will those students get jobs if graffiti is outlawed?” he poses.

He affirms that the Michuki rules are important and should be adhered to.

He explains, “We are not against the rules. We think safety belts and speed governors are critical in improving road safety. But what is the relation between features like graffiti and road safety?”

Be allowed

Moha says that pictures and graffiti should be allowed on matatus, as long as they are decent and non-reflective, as should lights, as long as they do not interfere with the vision of other drivers”.

“Saying matatus should not be colourful is destroying our culture, he notes, “I use my art to communicate to society and inspire people”.

Ultimately, Moha thinks, the matatu art culture is simply one that cannot be stopped.