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A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi


A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi

Drive the streets of Nairobi, and you are sure to see many matatus—colorful minibuses that transport huge numbers of people around the city. Once ramshackle affairs held together with duct tape and wire, matatus today are name-brand vehicles maxed out with aftermarket detailing. They can be stately black or extravagantly colored, sporting names, slogans, or entire tableaus, with airbrushed portraits of everyone from Kanye West to Barack Obama. In this richly interdisciplinary book, Kenda Mutongi explores the history of the matatu from the 1960s to the present.
As Mutongi shows, matatus offer a window onto the socioeconomic and political conditions of late-twentieth-century Africa. In their diversity of idiosyncratic designs, they reflect multiple and divergent aspects of Kenyan life—including, for example, rapid urbanization, organized crime, entrepreneurship, social insecurity, the transition to democracy, and popular culture—at once embodying Kenya’s staggering social problems as well as the bright promises of its future. Offering a shining model of interdisciplinary analysis, Mutongi mixes historical, ethnographic, literary, linguistic, and economic approaches to tell the story of the matatu and explore the entrepreneurial aesthetics of the postcolonial world.

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352 pages | 31 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History, Urban History

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work


"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. . . . A magnificent book that challenges the conventional view of the matatu."

Daily Nation

"Matatu . . . provides Nairobians with an intriguing and marvelously written history. Mutongi presents the story of the matatu with enthusiasm, narrative élan, and a balanced view of all actors involved. . . . Mutongi is a gifted historian, representing a new generation of Kenyan historians."

Global Urban History

"The published history of urban transport in Africa has just had an enormous boost. Mutongi’s marvellous analysis of postcolonial minibus taxi transport in Nairobi is such a welcome record and such a remarkable injection of insight. . . . Mutongi’s authoritative deconstruction and story-telling dazzles. Her Matatu becomes the baseline and re-entry point for African minibus research. Her antenna are acutely sensitive. Her phrasings are a treat. Not least, her gorgeously written and accessible presentation is testimony to the enduring value of books as vehicles for argument, learning and pleasure. This book glows with stamina, patient inquiry and careful thought. Its coherence, layering and depth far surpass online capsule histories. Matatu slices with diamond-tipped tools. May there be more such glinting dissections of urban transport history in Africa."

Journal of Transport History

"[Matatu] offers important contributions to the literature on African cities, informal economies, mobility, regulatory landscapes, and urban infrastructures... [by] using the matatu sector to highlight the success of African-run business without assistance from government or development agencies... Although laudatory and ultimately hopeful, Mutongi's Matatu does not overlook the darker elements of the sector... [and] will be of great interest to all scholars in disciplines spanning African history, urban studies, anthropology, and geography, as well as scholars of mobility, infrastructures, and the regulatory environment of neoliberalism at work and on the road."

African Studies Review

"Mutongi’s book ultimately offers a lyrical and fine-tuned account of the city and its inhabitants. Foregrounding the men who owned and operated matatus, the range of people who rode them, and the politicians who tried to regulate the industry, Mutongi effectively uses the matatu as a vehicle through which to understand the connected histories of city-building in a segregated postcolony, urban life, and the political economy of Kenya."


"Mutongi has written a lively, meticulously researched history of the matatu industry in Nairobi. Incorporating an array of ethnographic, documentary and archival sources, Mutongi vividly illustrates how matatus, those raucous, crowded, colorful van taxis that ply the city’s thoroughfares, are not merely an indispensable means of transport for the wanainchi (everyday Kenyans), but also significant, highly charged sites of expansive entrepreneurship, economic nationalism, political critique, cultural innovation, gender and generational contests, and common corruption."

International Journal of African Historical Studies

“This book does for Matatus what David Landes did for clocks—it uses them as a mirror to see the world in a different way. It will change the way you think about Africa.”

James A. Robinson, co-author of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.

“Africa's social histories too often exist through anecdote and the oral—Mutongi addresses this by providing a systematic narrative of one of Kenya's most enduring post-independence symbols. Matatu is a must read for all those who are especially curious about the contemporary African city.”

Billy Kahora, author of The True Story of David Munyakei

“Not only is this a fascinating, multidimensional piece of scholarship, it focuses our attention on an industry that is distinctively homegrown and locally-owned. These remarkable vehicles are the veins and arteries of Nairobi, just as their counterparts are in cities throughout the rest of Africa and much of the world’s South. Yet I have never seen them, their drivers, their passengers, and the culture around them written about in such a clear and thoughtful way.”

Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

"Methodologically innovative and a joy to read, Matatu takes a unique ethnographic approach to reconstructing the history of Nairobi’s privately owned urban transport from the 1960s to the present. An interdisciplinary work that mixes examinations of business, urban style, political power, mobility, gender, identity, and postcolonial intrigue, Matatu is distinguished by the rigor and breadth of its research, its contributions to African and global history, and the wit and imagination with which it was conceived and executed."

Winner of the 2018 Martin A. Klein Prize

"This was the matatu, the mass public transportation system created and operated by a vast network of Kenyan city dwellers, including entrepreneurs, drivers, mechanics, investors, and decorative artists. Kenda Mutongi has written an excellent new book, combining archival work and ethnography, to reveal the history of this industry, and, more broadly, of urban Africa. ...Like Mutongi’s earlier work, this book is beautifully written, accessible, and inviting to a wide audience of specialists and nonspecialists alike."

Emily Callaci | Africa Today

Table of Contents

PART ONE Background
Introduction: Matatu

1 “The Only Way to Get There Was on Foot”

PART TWO Moving People, Building the Nation, 1960–73

2 “It Is a Diffi cult System to Beat”

3 “We Are Making a Living by Constitutional Means”

PART THREE Deregulation, 1973–84

4 Kenyatta’s Decree, 1973

5 “Jump In, Squeeze, Jump Out—Quickly!”

PART FOUR Government Regulation, 1984–88

6 The Matatu Bill of 1984

7 “Only Those Who Are Afraid Use Force”

PART FIVE Organized Crime? 1988–2014

8 KANU Youth Wingers

9 Mungiki: Fighting a Phantom?

PART SIX Generation Matatu, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1990–2014

10 Music, Politics, and Profit

11 “Pimp” My Ride

PART SEVEN Self- Regulation, 2003–14

12 The Michuki Rules

Conclusion: Making It in Nairobi



Association for Africanist Anthropology: Elliott P. Skinner Book Award

Business History Conference: Hagley Prize

American Historical Association: Martin A. Klein Prize

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