Three coins to travel through Nairobi

In the mornings, our little ragtag group of interns stumbles out of the house, walks groggily to the gate and for one moment, forgets where it is and steps straight onto the road when—

Screech. “TOWN?!”

A man howls at us, swinging out of the open door of a still-moving white van chock-full of passengers. We smile blearily and shake our heads, and the mutatu roars away, covering us with black smoke.

Hello, this is a morning call, it is time to get up ma’am…

Mutatus are small white vans that can fit up to 12 to 15 people—but, which sometimes hold more. The word itself means "three coins"—which is roughly the amount of the fare. These small buses are terrifyingly efficient—they don’t have routes set in stone, so sometimes they can change their course according to the needs of their passengers. It’s like a very cheap taxi.

Some friends of mine from New York City told me that the mutatu phenomenon has spread all the way to the Big Apple itself. Immigrants from Africa searching for work sometimes revert to the skills they developed back here on their continent—driving a mutatu.

They’re feisty things, careening down the bumpy road with slightly reckless abandon, and decorated with names and sayings. The word “Grillz” snarls across the front glass of one mutatu in flaming letters. Another, blasting a track by Lil’ Wayne, proclaims “LUDACRIS.” For the more religiously inclined drivers, vans are christened “Martin Luther” and “Magdalene.” A few had intricate pictures of Jesus with a crown of thorns emblazoned on the nose of the vehicle. Others had “Allahu Akbar” pasted on the glass.

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I had finally worked up the courage to ride one the third weekend I was here, when a friend and I decided to go to the Nairobi National Museum. While the museum itself was fascinating, with the skeleton of “Lucy” and other skulls of human ancestors on display, the ride there was just as eventful.

Squeezed in the backseat, I looked up to see advertisements stuck haphazardly on the sides. The inside of a mutatu is usually covered with advertisements, posters and random stickers. I’ve even seen one mutatu at night with a TV screen fixed on the back of the front seat for the passengers at the back—fancy.

As we hurled through the streets of Nairobi, I eyed the passing landscape curiously. We bounced past an intersection with an ornate Hindu temple to the left and a tree-ringed Catholic cathedral to the right, with the criss-cross of Chinese-built highways bridging the congested traffic in the middle. Passerby stood warily until we passed to cross the roads.

Crossing a Kenyan road can be daunting. Luckily, I’d been in Shanghai for half of my life, so I’d had plenty of training on how to avoid careening cars. Still, you've got to be wary of the speeding, half-broken cars and the over-filled trucks that could swerve any time...

Apparently the Nairobi government is planning to eliminate the mutatus, limiting them so that only legitimate drivers are allowed on the roads and making way for the newer city buses. While I appreciate the attempt at safety, however, I feel that taking away the mutatu will take a quirky characteristic away from the city.

The buses are roomier but ask for more money. And they still hurt your gluteus maximus just as much or more than mutatus do—no improvement in that regard. Crossing the road with those large buses is also much scarier, at least for me. Most importantly, the buses don't have the names scrawled across their windshields like some strange legacy of naming ships.

It just wouldn’t be the same, at least for me, without those mutatus.


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