Nairobi is often described as the hub of East Africa, but if there’s a wheel attached to it, there’s no way it can be revolving. Not at the moment, at least. I am sitting in three lanes of traffic on a downhill dirt slope approaching the Parklands roundabout, a chaotic junction just to the north of the Central Business District, over which a Chinese-constructed flyover is slowly taking shape. To call it a roundabout in its current state would accord it a sense of movement and regulation that the scene of mayhem in front of me defiantly resists. A slipway to my left peters out into a mire of wet concrete, an unfinished overpass juts precariously into the sky, and, in the epicentre of it all, a monstrous engine judders back and forth in the red earth, oblivious to the jostling cars that swarm around it. “Bear with us – we are building for the future!” announces a flaking, hand-painted sign on a low wall which looks like it’s been there for years. It’s dwarfed by a billboard which urges the melee of motorists below to ‘insure their assets against political violence and terrorism’. The huge accompanying image of a burning car with a rejoicing rebel gunman beside it does little to calm my nerves. It’s rush hour in Nairobi, and I’m still getting used to it.
Rush hour, it seems, begins in the morning at 6.30 and ends at 12, before resuming at 2 and finishing around 9. It’s a miracle anyone gets to work at all. The pavements are lined with ‘Jua Cali’ salesmen, outdoor DIY wheeler-dealers selling anything from bedsteads to spark plugs to, well, wheels. It occurs to me that they could have been commuters once too, but at some stage they got fed up of waiting in traffic and set up shop on the kerbside.
Once I have recalibrated my expectations of urban road travel, the experience becomes surprisingly enjoyable. I normally seethe with frustration when approaching a tailback on the M4 corridor, but there is a camaraderie to the Nairobi traffic experience which derives from the knowledge that you are all in the same glorious mess. The whole thing has the feel of a good-natured destruction derby. A few bumps and scrapes are inevitable, but you’re all in it together, and no-one’s going faster than you. I am finding the chaos invigorating, if only because each journey brings your mortality into sharp focus and makes you glad to be alive. I am also becoming something of an exhaust-fume connoisseur – there is a particular heady, sweet and almost fruity variety expelled by some of the trucks that you just can’t find on the staid and sober streets of London.
The radio provides another rich source of entertainment. Nairobi radio stations are hugely competitive and inclusive, playing a mix of hip-hop, reggae and pop, all with their own African flavour. Languages in abundance are thrown into the pot: all Kenyans speak at least three (their tribal language, Swahili and English) and it’s common to hear songs which combine two or three of these, as well as songs in Hindi, Ganda (a Ugandan language) or Sheng, the Nairobi youth dialect (itself a mixture of Swahili and English, spiced with words borrowed from tribal languages, Hindi and even German and French).
No-one’s going faster than you, with the notable exception of the matatus. These ubiquitous Nissan minibus taxis run by the mungiki, the local mafia, are the most characteristic and notorious feature of Nairobi traffic culture. Although I ride in them on a daily basis, I am still not sure whether it’s more dangerous to be a passenger in one or a fellow road user. Matatus are operated by a two-man team of driver and tout, both working on commission; the tout makes sure that the vehicle is full as possible at all times, often playing tug-of-war over punters with rivals, while the driver performs terrifying overtaking manoeuvres in the traffic in order to get to his destination faster than his competitors, thereby exacerbating the congestion all the more. Typically, matatu operators spend a lot of money on equipping their vehicle with a huge soundsystem (at the expense of roadworthy parts) in order to blast their passengers with reggae in an attempt to encourage a carefree and laid-back mood and convince them that they are not in fact embroiled in a maelstrom of havoc. Perhaps it works; the atmosphere amongst matatu passengers is admirably calm and polite, despite faces being in armpits and at least four buttocks on every seat.
As well as taking pride in the size of their bass woofers, matatu operators are at pains to personalise the outsides of their vehicles. They used to be painted all kinds of colours, but a few years ago the government introduced legislation to standardise the industry. It may seem strange to have standardised a massive criminal enterprise rather than prohibit it, but it is the closest thing to a public transport service that exists in Nairobi, and one on which much of its population depends. The new laws insisted that matatus had to be painted all white with a single horizontal yellow stripe (they also introduced compulsory seatbelts for all and a maximum passenger load of 14, but only the paint job law seems to have been heeded or enforced). This left only the windscreens available for personalisation, which the owners made the most of by emblazoning single word mottos or phrases across their tops.
There seem to be various different schools of thought involved in branding one’s matatu. Most popular of these is the macho approach: DISPUTE, GAZA STRIP, HYPEBEAST, KAMIKAZE (SAY YOUR LAST PRAYERS) and FREAK-A-LIQUOR were prominent examples. These basically say, in various ways, this vehicle is fucking dangerous: are you man enough to take a ride? In a country with shocking road accident figures it struck me that HEARSE (in comic sans font) was taking the grim humour a bit far.
Meanwhile, other matatu owners belong to what might be called the ‘inappropriate abstraction’ movement, invoking wholesome and moral concepts with words like INTEGRITY, SERENITY, DESIRE, BLESSING, FRIENDLY. One of my favourites was OXYGENATED – as if to say, it may look crowded in this vehicle but you can still breathe in it, honestly! Others resisted categorisation and simply induced wonderment: VACCINE, FACEBOOK, HURRICANE TIFFANY, ART IS TIME. After five weeks in Nairobi, I am becoming the matatu equivalent of a trainspotter. I know at which junction to look to the right in the hope of catching a glimpse of FREAK-A-LIQUOR plying his morning trade, and once I kept a roadside vigil with my camera waiting for KAMIKAZE to hove into view. But he had hurtled through my viewfinder before I could capture him, and all I was left with was a cloud of red dust.