Matatu Mzungu (White Man on a Mini-Bus) p.1 (of 2)

Ron Singer

Those matatu drivers are so horrible! They are so wonderful!
--Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Kenyan writer (in conversation with Ron Singer).

In Nairobi, at first, I took the bus.
“Beware of pickpockets!” warned my squash coach,
a dreadlocked youth from the Kibera slum.
Whereas I trundled like an elephant,
Coach Morisi ran like an antelope.
He described their modus operandi:
“A big one gets in front, blocking the door.
Another, behind, pushes you forward,
while a nimble boy extracts your wallet,
dropping it into a messenger bag.”

A few days later, thanks to Coach’s tip,
I thwarted the crew. Grabbing the boy’s hand,
I warned him, “If I shout now, they’ll beat you.”
I doubt I saved him from a life of crime.
Traffic soothsaying is impossible
in “Nairobbery.”  Getting anyplace
from anywhere can take you anything
from half a minute to half a day. Weather,
accidents, sinkholes, palaver, roadblocks
manned by venial, underpaid police.

Scared off the bus, I opted for matatus,
ten-passenger vans often packed double,
with respectable matrons, sardine-like,
forced to ride on the laps of lucky men.

Meanwhile, music, American export,
shakes the matatu --gangsta video.
The lyrics are, “Fuck fuck fuck bitch shit bitch.”
For this mzungu, a Dantean touch.

The ubiquitous Kenyan minibus taxis - known as "matatus" are very cheap, but also notoriously overcrowded, crazily driven and horrendously dangerous.

This poem and its sequel adapted from an essay in New Maps, 2012. First published in The Road Not Taken, 2015.

Check out Matatu Mzungu Part 2 here.

Other poems about Kenya on Poetry Atlas.

Main Location:

Nairobi, Kenya

Matatus in Nairobi, Kenya