A US-based Kenyan professor of history has published an amazing book about matatus, the public service vehicles so common on Kenyan roads.
Prof Kenda Mutongi sees the matatu as an intriguing mode of transportation that carries with it the history of Kenya as a post-colonial nation.
In the book, titled Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi, Prof Mutongi offers a nuanced and rigorously researched analysis that will serve as an excellent model for the study of both history and culture in Africa. It is published by the highly selective University of Chicago Press.
It goes for $30 (Sh3,000) at Amazon, but talks are underway to have it published in Nairobi, so it is affordable locally.
To write the book, Prof Mutongi uses archival research in Nairobi and elsewhere alongside ethnographic research, including interviewing matatu users, owners, and crews and riding on matatus for over 10 years during the research.
Coming from a humble background, the author was born and raised in Wangeyo, a small village in rural western Kenya, where she ate her ugali with itsisaga, irikuvi, and omena. She attended Butere Girls High School before proceeding to the US for further studies.
Prof Mutongi has become one of the leading voices in African studies today. She is a professor of history at Williams College and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the richly interdisciplinary book, Mutongi explores the history of the matatu from the 1960s to the present. She bases the book on the premise that matatus offer a window onto the socioeconomic and political conditions of late-20th-century Kenya.
She creatively mixes historical, ethnographic, literary, linguistic, and economic approaches to tell the story of the matatu and explore the entrepreneurial aesthetics of the post-colonial world.
The result is a magnificent book that challenges the conventional view of the matatu.
In their changing idiosyncratic designs and aesthetics, matatus reflect the good and the bad of the Kenyan life — including cut-throat radical capitalism, globalisation, and organised crime.
Although she does not say it in so many words, one can sense that she is aware that matatus are conduits of money laundering and the most notorious of them are owned by drug barons, corrupt cops, and thieves.
The author is beloved of matatu drivers and touts in Nairobi as the “Matatu professor,” but Mutongi does not idealise her friends on the road as angels of progress and equity.
She expresses frustration at matatus as dens of criminality and all that is wrong in Kenya: blackmail, bribery, gerrymandering, deceit, extortion, vulgarity, porn, drug abuse, murder and accidents.
It is because matatus express us that the most memorable quips during the 2017 presidential campaigns revolved around the matatu culture (e.g., drivers that are drunk and conductors that are thieves to describe certain candidates and their running mates).
I would go so far as to recommend to the government that this year a few makangas (matatu conductors and touts) should be included on the list of state honours because they are so much like the clowns we call our leaders: inept, unfocused, and corrupt.
Prof Mutongi writes in the highly readable style we enjoyed in her other history book, Worries of the Heart (2007), about the impact of colonialism and post-colonial disillusionment on Maragoli widows.
APPEALS TO GENERAL READERS
Like the previous book, Matatu appeals to general readers as well as historians and students of African culture. It can easily be adopted in different academic settings, especially in anthropology, popular cultural studies, history, and sociology classes.
There are no historical books on matatu. The only one that comes close to Mutongi’s book, which she has reviewed, is Mbugua wa Mungai’s Nairobi’s Matatu Men, written as a dissertation for the Hebrew University of Israel and published in Nairobi.
Mutongi’s book opens with a contextualisation of the matatu within the large historical concerns in Kenya and Africa in general. Its major strength is comparing matatu with other modes of transport in the global south: Pesero (Mexico) or jeepney (Philippines), and dala dala (Tanzania).
The second and the third chapters explain the success of the matatu in the 1960s within the context of an Africanization project. She includes fascinating images of matatus from this period.
Chapters 4 and 5 of the book examine the growth of matatus as a result of what Mutongi calls “de-regularisation” resulting from a presidential decree in the early 1970s. Chapters 6 and 7 detail the regulations that Moi’s regimes brought in its wake.
In another section of the book, she focuses on the 1990s and the use of the Kanu Youth Wingers and mungiki to control matatu interests. Mutongi uses the section to discuss the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in Kenya and the role matatus played in the clamour for change.
The last section turns to the 21st-century matatus and their sense of global connections and affiliations. Particularly interesting is the study of music and graffiti on the matatus.
A chapter is dedicated to the “Michuki rules”. From interviews with matatu owners and their leaders, Mutongi reveals the intrigues behind the scenes before the rules could be implemented.
From the interviews, it appears John Michuki (1932-2012) wasn’t the angel we took him to be when he introduced rules to rein in matatus; the transport minister allegedly used colonialist “divide and conquer” tactics to force the industry to accept his dictates.
It is quite a while since I read a book which I really envied. Matatu is so creatively written, I wish I were its author. But I’d look at the matatu industry from a feminist/queer angle.
In an essay I co-authored with my friend Prof Wanjiru Mbure of Stonehill College in the US in 2009 on the representations of the matatu in Nazizi Hirji’s music, we read matatus as spaces of pure heterosexual love. Unware of the resources queer theory offered in reading cultural texts, neither Chiru nor I could notice the tomboyish self-fashioning in the matatu girls in the songs.
At that time, I hadn’t discovered that a matatu driver friend of mine called Museseiya wasn’t so straight in his intimacies, although he was married to a woman and had three kids.
Today I know better. In their colours and the intimate experiments of their crews, matatus are as queer as most of the rest of Kenya, a country so queer it should officially change its name to Quenya. If I were to write a book on matatus, it would be about how queer they are.
Prof Evan Mwangi teaches literature in the United States. [email protected] @evanmwangi