Saturday, June 24, 2017

Kenda Mutongi's "Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi"

Kenda Mutongi is professor of history at Williams College and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT. She is the author of Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya.

Mutongi applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi, and reported the following:
From page 99:
While passengers may have been doing their best to adjust to the precipitous increase in the number of matatus, as well as the rowdy workers and dangerous travel conditions, the owners were not doing nearly as well. Many of the owners had become so unprincipled and antagonistic that they had managed to jeopardize their own chances of survival.

The current state of affairs was unsustainable, and it was becoming clear that some sort of backlash was looming, from the government if not from the passengers themselves. The more thoughtful owners were even reconsidering the need for government regulation in the industry. It made sense, given the explosion in the numbers of matatus and the unregulated competition, along with the antisocial behavior of their own workers. “Lack of regulation was not a good thing for business,” recalled Innocent Kamau, a matatu owner in the 1970s. “See, not all the people in the industry were good people and sometimes tried to cheat you, so you needed the government to help out, but they were not doing so; they left us just like that,” and he waved his fingers sideways, shook his head, and pressed his lips together in disgust.

Kamau was not alone. Many of the people who had bought matatus in the 1970s felt that the industry needed to be controlled— though, it must be granted that they were saying so in hindsight. By and large, matatu owners who had vehicles in good mechanical condition wanted defective vehicles off the roads (no doubt for safety reasons and also because they wanted to expand their business and increase their profits). They also wanted some controls placed upon the touts’ aggressive and rude conduct, and death- defying stunts of their drivers, so that passengers might become more trusting and less combative. It was gradually becoming apparent to the more responsible owners that good vehicles and good behavior were better for business.
What is the best way to regulate the matatu industry? This is the main question in Matutu. And one of the main contradictions in the government’s attempt at regulation occurs on page 99.

Until 1973, matatu business was considered illegal by the government. However in June of that year, Jomo Kenyatta, the then president of Kenya passed a decree legalizing the businesses. The ruling was a surprise. Even more surprising was the fact that Kenyatta had declined to prescribe any restrictions, or require any form of licensing, on the matatus. It may have been a simple oversight. But by foregoing the chance to regulate the industry he gave the matatu owners de facto permission to explore the limits
of laissez-faire capitalism. Suddenly everybody wanted in on the action. Unfit vehicles in all states of disrepair began roaming the streets; even more dangerous was the recklessness with which drivers began to operate their rickety rattletraps— bouncing through potholed streets, reeling around corners, the drivers raced through the streets as fast as they could to get first crack at passengers who they then packed in so tightly that arms, legs, and backsides were left hanging out of doors and windows.

The indifference to safety, along with the government’s regulatory neglect, led to a predictable increase in accidents. The passages on page 99 occur at this crucial moment in the book when matatu owners become extremely frustrated by Kenyatta’s decree.
Learn more about Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue