Transportation in Nairobi: the Matatus

Monday, October 17, 2011  at 6:57 AM
Getting around in Nairobi is like a long adventure—while it seems exciting to talk about, when it’s happening it’s really just a lot of waiting (Lord of the Rings, I’m looking at you and all your walking!).  

The main form of transportation in Nairobi is the matatu, a form of converted van that functions as a bus.  If you are boarding a matatu at the end of a line, you’re in luck—find the one going to the correct destination, scramble inside, and wait for it to fill up so it can leave (the matatus leave once they are full, instead of following a time-table).  Make sure to verify that it is going to your intended location; for example, there are three bus #33’s, all of which go to the same part of town but take different routes and have different stops.  If you are boarding a matatu in the middle of a line, be prepared to wave down all matatus that pass you by until the correct number, with empty seats, stops.  Often, if you look like a foreigner, matatus will honk, slow down or stop entirely if they see you standing by or walking on the side of the road.

side of road stall nairobi kenya by Danalynn C
One of many roadside stands in Nairobi, seen from my matatu.

Once your journey is underway, the matatu assistant will tap you on the shoulder—this is your signal to pay.  You pay a fare (ranging in price from $0.40USD to $0.80USD, depending on the time of day, the business and the weather), which buys you a full or partial trip on the matatu.  The assistant deals with money and signaling to the driver to stop or go, while the driver only drives (which makes sense, with how perilous the driving can be!).  

If you are only traveling part of the route, let the matatu assistant know where you want to get off.  This works best for me, since I’m never quite sure where my stop is!  If you are traveling the entire route, relax and relish this opportunity to people watch out the window.  Many of my street photos have been taken from the open window of a matatu, as holding a camera on the main street can attract attention (cameras are not something most regular locals have).

A matatu ride can be very long if traffic is terrible, which it usually is in Nairobi.  The longest we’ve sat in traffic so far has been for two and a half hours, to travel fifteen kilometers (about seven miles).  Going in and out of the city center is always very crowded, but there are sweet times when the traffic is not as bad.  From our experience, traffic is bearable before 8:00AM, between 1:00PM-3:00PM, and after 9:00PM.  Weekend traffic is not as bad, because people are not commuting to work.  

Thinking that walking might be a viable alternative?  So did we, until one day we spent two and a half hours walking two-thirds of the way into town.  Not only is the way very long and very hot, but dust is everywhere due to constant construction and the dirt roads.  Of course, keep in mind that the Couchsurfing host we were staying with lived a ways out of downtown proper—if you are staying in downtown itself, you will probably have a much easier time getting around than we did!  

driving road sign nairobi kenya africa by Danalynn C 
Road signs in Nairobi

In the center of downtown Nairobi, there are a few main places that the matatus congregate.  The matatus going to Langata road, where many of the tourist destinations are (such as the Giraffe Center, the Elephant Orphanage, and the National Park), all park in front of the train station.  To go to the Giraffe Center, matatu #24 is the one for you, while matatus #125 and #126 go past the National Park and the Elephant Orphanage.  Side note: If you are going to the Elephant Orphanage, ask to be dropped off at the Central Workshop, which is where the Elephant Orphanage is located.  If you ask to be dropped off at the Elephant Orphanage, chances are you will be dropped off at the National Park Main gate, where the general Animal Orphanage is at—five kilometers too soon (yes, we did this).  

The government is starting to standardize the matatus, only allowing fourteen seats inside and cleaner appearances.  However, if you’re lucky then you will find one still decked out with colorful seats, painted insides, and amped up speakers blasting music way too loud.  Either way, it’s a way to get around that will be unforgettable!

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