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What's a Matatu?

matatu

A number of years ago, I got "MATATU" on my license plate. I frequently get asked what it means. I used to try to explain to people what it really means, but soon gave up on that. People just don't get it. I tell them that it means "taxi" in Swahili. But those of you who have been to Kenya, and travelled in a matatu, know that that really does not sum up the experience if riding in a matatu.

"Matatu" comes from the swahili word (or Kikuyu, depending on who you listen to) for "three." It used to cost 3 shillings to ride in a matatu. But what is a matatu? These days, a matatu is usually a minibus, or other public transportation in Kenya. When I was in Kenya, a matatu was usually (and probably still is, farther from the larger cities) a pickup truck, with a cover on the bed. For a few shillings a piece, as many people as can cram in there, with their baggage, and perhaps some livestock, can get a ride to where they are going. And often there would be baggage on the top, and perhaps some chickens on top, and several people hanging out the back door.

Riding in a matatu, particularly for any distance, is an experience that you won't soon forget. Sure, it can be dangerous, and the drivers are well-known for their reckless driving. People are killed on the Kenya roads every week by some careless matatu driver.

So, why do I have "MATATU" on my license plate? To remind me of home. And because in college we would pack as many people as we possibly could into my little car when we went places.

Important note and disclaimer: I get email almost every week correcting my facts here. Matatu, they tell me, comes from 3 10-cent pieces. Or 3 1-cent pieces. Or 3 5-cent pieces. Or how many miles you could expect to survive. Or something else. There are numerous versions of this. I think that the main point is that it probably has something to do with the cost, which is more now than it was in the good old days. Can you please stop emailing me about it? Thanks. Oh, yeah, and I no longer drive the MATATU license plate car. It's a long story.

Some pages about matatus

Well, I had some really good links to stories about matatus, but most of them have gone away. Here's what's left.