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'Ticket to Hell' Is Cheap, Popular and Risky for Kenyan Commuters

Africa: Nairobi's flamboyant minibus taxis are prone to deadly accidents, but reformers find it's tough to tackle an urban institution.


NAIROBI, Kenya — Operators of Kenya's garishly painted minibus taxis seem to revel in their lawlessness, unabashedly inviting passengers to board vehicles emblazoned with names such as "The Terrorist," "Highway Massacre" and "The Ticket to Hell."

Each year, accidents involving the largely unregulated taxis, known as matatus, kill hundreds of passengers--far more than the marauding bandits who roam parts of this East African nation.

With their earthquake music and graffiti art, matatus are reigned over by fearless crews of at least three young men, many of whom hang out of the careening vehicles to solicit passengers. Several times a day, the drivers cough up bribes to police officers who pull them over for cramming more than 25 people in minivans designed to carry no more than seven.

But the dreaded matatu--which one prominent guidebook describes as Kenya's contribution to the world--may be about to get a makeover.

Taxi owners, who have to battle cartels that control the matatu trade, are pressuring authorities to enact a code of conduct that they say will finally bring civility to their rough-and-tumble business.

The proposed rules of the matatu owners are telling: They would prevent drivers from chewing khat, smoking marijuana or indulging in other drugs while on duty. Operators would have to possess driver's licenses and not be "morally decadent."

Loud music and most graffiti art would be outlawed. Touts--brash conductors who solicit passengers--would be required to wear uniforms. Matatus would sport strips of cautionary orange painted over their original colors.

Many Kenyans believe that the campaign to rescue the country from what is known here as "matatu madness" is destined to fail.

"Asking a matatu driver to display good manners is like pleading with a lion to stop hunting for meat," said George Mvudi, who drives a matatu with the name Oprah emblazoned on the windshield. "It's a jungle out there, and if you don't follow rules of the jungle, you don't survive."

"Let the people of Nairobi have a song and a bit of color," said Mutuma Mathiu, a columnist for the Daily Nation newspaper. "Life is hard as it is without adding mousy matatus and touts in smocks."

Matatu counterculture, Mathiu said, is a porthole into the chaotic soul of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

"The matatu man epitomizes the impatient, aggressive, virile and energetic qualities of our city," he said. "The up-yours literature and art on the matatu ... is the language of a polluted, poor and unplanned city."

The history of the matatu dates to Kenya's 1963 independence from Britain, when young entrepreneurs bought used military vehicles to ferry people from the suburbs to jobs in the city. Riders paid tatu--the Swahili word for three--cents. (Rides in Nairobi now cost about 15 to 40 cents, depending on the distance.)

As workers flocked to Nairobi, matatus became wildly popular, providing a cheaper alternative to Kenya's inefficient bus service.

The matatus began reflecting the hobbies, personal fantasies and dreams of their drivers and touts. Today, matatus are likely to bear the names of hip-hop artists--Snoop Doggy Dogg, P. Diddy, Ice T--or sports idols such as Marion Jones, Mike Tyson and Kobe Bryant.

Other drivers simply try to cash in on hot news topics. John Okana, 29, named his Nissan matatu Monica Lewinsky after the revelation that she was romantically involved with former President Clinton.

"I love her toughness and her abilities to stand things," Okana said. "Plus, it has given me an upper hand on women [passengers], who love riding this vehicle."

Driver Stephen Macharia found that naming his matatu Oprah--"I just fell in love with her, her beauty, her show"--meant more riders. Several copycats have since splashed the name of the talk-show host on their matatus.

Names aren't the only way that crews compete. Matatus are mobile discos, pumping out the latest hip-hop, lingala (Congolese pop) and reggae dance-hall tunes at an ear-shattering 200 decibels.

A doctor at Kenyatta National Hospital here said many passengers have suffered "mental disturbance, stress, dizziness and vertigo" after being bombarded with the loud music.

A common rule for matatu operators is that there is always room for one more. Because some passengers have to sit on others' laps, women are frequently groped. Many riders tumble out of the barely stopped vehicles, their wallets, cell phones and other valuables in the possession of pickpockets.

It doesn't help that matatu crews are often sleep-deprived teenagers who use their meager wages to buy booze, marijuana and shoots of khat, a mild stimulant.

Police say horrific matatu crashes account for most of the 3,000 Kenyans who die in road accidents each year. According to media reports, Kenya has the highest vehicular fatality rate in the world.

Last year, 23 people were killed and 35 injured when their speeding, 25-seat matatu plunged into a river south of Nairobi.

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