In Summary
  • The matatus have now been revealed to be something more than vehicles driven my mad men — they are Nairobi’s most efficient distribution mechanism of its working population.
  • If Governor Sonko knew how exactly matatus played into the wider economy, he might have chosen a different path.

When morning came on Monday, it was supposed to be the worst day for the Kenyan matatu industry, as the ban on them getting anywhere near the Nairobi central business district imposed by Governor Mike Sonko went into effect.

The chaos was expected, and as the drama unfolded, Sonko could even afford to joke that the ban offered good exercise for unfit Nairobians. By lunch time, it had turned into a world-class disaster — and the biggest public relations coup for matatus.

Hundreds of thousands of commuters flooded the roads, overwhelming flyovers and some streets like locusts.

We know that there are nearly four million people in Nairobi and its environs, but we would never have figured out how what they looked like on foot until Monday.

The resulting mass of humanity created, perhaps, the most memorable photographs of urban Kenya in 30 years — thousands of people who were too many for footbridges, which looked close to collapsing and killing record numbers from the sheer weight.

ECONOMY

Even if you are very clever, I am sure you didn’t envisage that you would have a “traffic” jam waiting to get on a footbridge that would be longer than the ones made by cars on the streets.

Nairobi’s bigger nightmare, it turns out, is not its ungovernable matatus; it’s the city residents on foot. The capital is not just built to handle them.

And the matatus have now been revealed to be something more than vehicles driven my mad men — they are Nairobi’s most efficient distribution mechanism of its working population.

I suspect that, this week, many students of urbanisation in Kenya settled on the subject of their master’s theses. But, especially, I think Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich didn’t sleep on Monday night.

He must have been on his calculator, working out how much the matatu industry pays in taxes and figuring that, if they remitted his cut from just a fraction of the multitudes he saw walking that day, then all this talk of Kenya being heavily indebted would disappear in the mountain of surplus that he would have.

WEALTH

By Tuesday, Sonko had thrown in the towel and ended the matatu ban, but Rotich and the students of urbanisation were wiser.

The revelations we saw on Monday come along only once in a lifetime. However, the view we have of matatus also illustrated how often popular knowledge and accepted wisdom can be woefully wrong and hard to argue against until they are busted dramatically by events.

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