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Matatus: A Symbol of Kenya’s Urban Youth?

Matatus fill the streets, blaring music as they bounce and weave through traffic. Each matatu is louder than the next, complete with graffiti-style artwork, custom designs, flashy lights and on-board entertainment to pull the crowds. Convenient, cheap and sometimes chaotic, matatus are the choice mode of transport for most Kenyan youth.

Some people may argue that with a society that has done so little for young people to provide jobs, decent housing or mere role modeling, the matatu culture represents a form of defiance against this society. Despite the fact that this sector has been associated with crime and rowdiness, some elements – such as providing youth employment – exhibited by the industry’s key players have drawn support.

The youth have found income in the industry in a variety of ways, for example as drivers, touts, and through creativity by designing the artwork found on the matatus. The wave of creativity exhibited in these movable museums has helped take a lot of youth off the streets and nurtured their talents to countrywide stardom. These artistic expressions can sometimes be a cartoon character, politician, war hero, sports personality or even a movie star. Noisy exhaust pipes are also usually positioned to announce arrival and departure.

Did Kenyans invent the matatu? Certainly not. But perhaps if Kenya needed a 44th culture, it would probably be the matatu culture.