A Ride of Self-Reflection

By Min Jo, Intern at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, Summer 2017

For Min, the Kenyan matatu is as an embodiment of the hustle culture in Nairobi, and a conduit for reflections around the role of power and privilege.

A matatu, for those who have never had the pleasure of riding one, is a privately owned minibus that can be menace on the streets but a very affordable ride to anywhere in Kenya (a ride ranges from 20 cents to a dollar). They range in size, from a small cramped minivan with rickety sliding doors and peeling paint on its sides, to a Greyhound-sized bus with more legroom but the same amount of black exhaust puffing out of its pipes. The conductors on matatus all seem to share a secret knowledge of knocks that act as codes delivered to their drivers. A set of knuckles rapping on the side of the van can tell the driver, “go”, another set tells him to “stop,” and another might say “this lady wants to get off, slow down!”

The sheer number of matatus in the city and its outskirts means you’ll see lines of them waiting at bus stages, and everywhere you go, a matatu is guaranteed to drive past you with its conductor leaning out its window and yelling for potential passengers.

Fun fact - the informal network of matatus is so complex that it took a group of dedicated students from MIT, Colombia University and University of Nairobi and their combined efforts and numerous months of matatu rides to map out the routes for all of them in Nairobi.

 Min with the Faraja Cancer Support Trust team
Min-Jo group outside

What I’ve learned from riding these matatus – apart from expecting loud music and a bumpy ride – is that they are the embodiment of the hustle culture here in Nairobi, Kenya.  People here work and they work hard. It’s not uncommon to be waking up at 5 a.m. to avoid the heavy traffic and ride matatus for 2 to 3 hours to get to work twice a day, every day. Back in Toronto, one ride on the TTC costs $3.25, which in Nairobi would be the same price as a 20-minute Uber ride.

The privilege of being a citizen from a first world country is that I get to ride these matatus in Kenya and consider them dirt-cheap transportation. I get to compare them to the buses at home and think of how much money I’m saving. The reality for millions of people in Nairobi is that these matatus are the only available mode of transportation they have, and they rely on them to get to work and back home.

Living here for 90 days has opened my eyes to the differences between Toronto and Nairobi and has forced me to think about privilege and challenge  - it is an ongoing exercise. It’s something that has become part of my daily consciousness here in Nairobi. It’s a difficult concept to grapple with – I’m constantly trying to come to terms with the power imbalances that I am a part of. The work I’m doing here is to raise awareness of genetic testing, a technology that’s not yet accessible to the majority of Kenyans. The very nature of this project makes me think about privilege. The process of becoming comfortable and open to acknowledging and accepting my own privilege hasn’t been easy, but it’s been a necessary part of my time here. I’ve learned how important it is to take some time to reflect on the privileges I have, and to use the benefits I gain from these privileges in order to work towards a world that is focused on equality and fairness.

Photos: Min enjoying an amazing internship experience with the Faraja Cancer Support Trust team summer 2017.