- To write the book, Prof Mutongi uses archival research in Nairobi and elsewhere alongside ethnographic research, including interviewing matatu users, owners, and crews and riding on matatus for over 10 years during the research.
- Coming from a humble background, the author was born and raised in Wangeyo, a small village in rural western Kenya, where she ate her ugali with itsisaga, irikuvi, and omena. She attended Butere Girls High School before proceeding to the US for further studies.
A US-based Kenyan professor of history has published an amazing book about matatus, the public service vehicles so common on Kenyan roads.
Prof Kenda Mutongi sees the matatu as an intriguing mode of transportation that carries with it the history of Kenya as a post-colonial nation.
In the book, titled Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi, Prof 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. It is published by the highly selective University of Chicago Press.
It goes for $30 (Sh3,000) at Amazon, but talks are underway to have it published in Nairobi, so it is affordable locally.
To write the book, Prof Mutongi uses archival research in Nairobi and elsewhere alongside ethnographic research, including interviewing matatu users, owners, and crews and riding on matatus for over 10 years during the research.
Coming from a humble background, the author was born and raised in Wangeyo, a small village in rural western Kenya, where she ate her ugali with itsisaga, irikuvi, and omena. She attended Butere Girls High School before proceeding to the US for further studies.
Prof Mutongi has become one of the leading voices in African studies today. She is a professor of history at Williams College and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the richly interdisciplinary book, Mutongi explores the history of the matatu from the 1960s to the present. She bases the book on the premise that matatus offer a window onto the socioeconomic and political conditions of late-20th-century Kenya.
She creatively mixes historical, ethnographic, literary, linguistic, and economic approaches to tell the story of the matatu and explore the entrepreneurial aesthetics of the post-colonial world.
The result is a magnificent book that challenges the conventional view of the matatu.
In their changing idiosyncratic designs and aesthetics, matatus reflect the good and the bad of the Kenyan life — including cut-throat radical capitalism, globalisation, and organised crime.
Although she does not say it in so many words, one can sense that she is aware that matatus are conduits of money laundering and the most notorious of them are owned by drug barons, corrupt cops, and thieves.
The author is beloved of matatu drivers and touts in Nairobi as the “Matatu professor,” but Mutongi does not idealise her friends on the road as angels of progress and equity.
She expresses frustration at matatus as dens of criminality and all that is wrong in Kenya: blackmail, bribery, gerrymandering, deceit, extortion, vulgarity, porn, drug abuse, murder and accidents.
It is because matatus express us that the most memorable quips during the 2017 presidential campaigns revolved around the matatu culture (e.g., drivers that are drunk and conductors that are thieves to describe certain candidates and their running mates).
I would go so far as to recommend to the government that this year a few makangas (matatu conductors and touts) should be included on the list of state honours because they are so much like the clowns we call our leaders: inept, unfocused, and corrupt.