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“Matatu.” (mah-TAH-too.) I use the word a lot in my posts, referring to the 12-seater vans routinely filled with 20+ people (and another half-dozen or so sitting on the roof) that are one of the only forms of transportation in my little corner of the world. (Pikipikis, or motorbike taxis, are off-limits. Bodabodas, or pedal-bikes where you can sit on a little foam pad behind the driver, are comparatively rare. Tuktuks, or motorized rickshaw-type things, are expensive to hire. Private cars … where do you think this is, America?) They break down constantly, store tied-up livestock under the seats, flout traffic laws, and are too often kept afloat with baling wire and bribe money in substitution for legitimate annual inspections. But the ways they’re decorated – particularly outside of Nairobi, where the rules are less stringent – are quite elaborate, and sometimes very beautiful. At the very least, they’re always memorable.

The following link is for everyone who’s ever skimmed through an entry and gone, “What the hell is that?” The BBC talks matatus, their driver, and the culture that’s sprung up around them.

“Pimp My Matatu”: One Artist’s Struggle

Kenya’s minibus taxis, known as matatus – the country’s main form of public transport – are renowned for their dangerous driving, blaring out music at deafening volumes and their elaborate, graffiti-style artwork, often based on leading footballers, singers or film stars.

Owners and designers compete to have the loudest sound system and the most eye-catching design, saying this attracts customers but the government is trying to clamp down on them and has banned loud music and ordered matatus to have simple colour schemes.

If you’re wondering, “Doesn’t the loud music hurt your ears? Don’t the elaborate paint jobs and 32-inch plasma screens across the windows completely obstruct the drivers’ views?” The answer to both of these questions is, “Yes. Kabisa.”

(I love how, periodically in this interview, you can hear matatu touts in the background yelling “BEBA HAPA!! BEBA HAPA!!”)

Ajabu.

ah-JAH-boo.

In Swahili, it means weird, or unusual, or astonishing. It’s a word I’ve used to describe my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, to describe the wonky dreams gifted to me by my antimalarials, and to summarize why things in my life sometimes work out perfectly against all sensible reason. It’s a good word. And, oddly enough, it’s a word I’ve heard more this week than I have since I started learning the language.

Usage One.
I boarded a matatu the other day and found myself sandwiched within a pack of hyenas giggling school children. There were more in the row of seats behind me. It was a longish ride, during which I shielded myself from their curious gaze by reading a slightly outdated copy of The Daily Nation newspaper I hadn’t had a chance to finish yet. They spoke openly about me – my clothes, my figure, my skin – without realizing that I could understand a word they were saying. I heard a rustling behind me, as though the kid was leaning far forward in their vinyl seat, and suddenly – YANK. My ponytail was pulled.

I turned, gave the row of kids a mildly irritated look, and went back to my newspaper. It was less than two minutes before – YANK. Harder this time. When I turned, they got a scolding glare. Clearly, the deterrent failed, because I soon heard the creak of vinyl once again; before they could reach me, I wheeled around and snapped (in Swahili) ”KNOCK IT OFF! That’s bad behavior!”

The look-a-talking-farm-animal look came over their faces and they sat with mouths gaping until one summoned the courage to respond ”But your hair! It’s so … weird!”

I know.

Usage Two.
Leaving Malindi after a USAID monthly review meeting, I was greeted by a tout who recognized me and called to me familiarly. “DADA WATAMU! HABARI YAKO?! HABARI ZA KAZI?! HABARI ZA MAISHA?!” he inquired at maximum volume as he good-naturedly shoved me into the waiting matatu. I did my best to answer as I half-crawled, half-stumbled to the back row. Two women in hijabs sitting in front of me put their heads together in a much more discrete version of the school girls’ conversation from the previous day. ”The mzungu understands Swahili? Is it true?” one queried. ”I think so,” the other replied contemplatively. ”Do you know any other mzungu who learn Swahili?”
“No. It is unusual.”
She paused. ”Ajabu sana.” Very unusual.
The other nodded before adding, ”Ajabu kabisa.” Completely unusual.

I smiled privately at her invocation of one of my most favorite Kiswahili words. But that rarity’s a pity, don’t you think?

Usage Three.
I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, one of those parts of America where the expectation of the majority is still to live, wed, and die within a three county radius of where you were born. (And there’s nothing wrong with this – but it ain’t for me.) My best friend since I was knee high to a duck was a girl we’ll call R, who lived five houses down the street from me. We lost touch when I moved to Washington, DC following my parent’s divorce and I don’t know if I’d actually spoken to her more than once or twice since I was 15.

That is, up until last month, when she sent me a message on facebook to reconnect. She’s finished with university and is – for the moment, at least – an aspiring photojournalist based out of Nairobi. As in … Kenya. As in … a day’s busride from where I am. We made plans to meet up; I saw her briefly a few weeks ago as she sped up the Coast on an assignment, which was awesome. I was actually able to hang out with her more while I was in Mombasa this past weekend. We laughed and caught up and found ourselves wondering why we’d ever lost touch to begin with. She’s leaving Kenya soon to begin a graduate program in – what else? – African studies.

That kind of serendipity is … unexpected. Not impossible, of course, but in defiance of ready explanation.

Ni ajabu.

You’ve heard of bad hair days? Sometimes, you can have a bad language day. You trip over your tongue and fumble for words until you can’t even make a coherent point in *English*, let alone whatever Bantu spinoff you’re trying to learn at the moment. These days tend to make for great stories – such as those recalled on the blog of my friend/language partner/linguistic savant Lorenzo. Since getting to site, I’ve managed to say “I was late today because it took me a long time to circumcise myself” (instead of “get myself ready,” which differs by one letter) and “I did not breastfeed your test result” (instead of “look at,” which differs by two letters.) My coworkers appreciate my attempts to use Kiswahili whenever possible instead of English, but that may be because it’s so freakin’ hilarious when I mess up.

And I’ll agree. It generally is.

Alternatively, sometimes, you have a really, really good language day, where an endless stream of words are just there for the plucking. Rather than thinking of a statement, translating it in your head, then saying it slowly, you think of it in the target language to begin with. Everything’s easy. You even manage wit. Those are the days that make all the flash cards, LPIs, and awkward stuttering worth it.

Today was one of those days. I was scheduled to have my first meeting with a local People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) group at a large health center some miles from my town. My presence there had been arranged by a local VCT counselor, but he was going to be at a seminar today, so after the local public health officer introduced me it was going to be Megan: The Solo Act. I spent half the night staring at the ceiling, wondering what to say, how to ask questions clearly but without being too direct, and ultimately deciding that rehearsing was a useless enterprise. I was at the dispensary all morning, so I didn’t have time to pull out my language notebook from training and study the phrases for “grassroots” or “sustainable income generating activities.” I was just going in cold.

And … it went fine. I introduced myself in Kiswahili, talked a little bit about my organization and its history, a little bit about what other volunteers do, and a little bit about the things I might be doing. I explained that today I was here to learn about the history and projects of their group, and then maybe in the future we could work to do sustainable capacity-building activities together (if you’re playing along with the Peace Corps Buzzword Drinking Game, that’s a double.) I reverted back to English a few times when I was talking about HIV/AIDS in America and when I lost the thread of how to talk about IGAs in Kiswahili, but I was able to understand questions they asked about me and immediately picked back up on the words when someone helped me translate. The woman who runs the group speaks some English, and when I saw her struggling to find the word for something, I was able to say ”What is it in Kiswahili? and almost always figure out exactly what she was getting at.

I’m not sure exactly in what capacity I’ll be working with them in the future, but I think today was a good start.

On the way home, my skills were tested again, but to slightly more comical effect. I boarded a matatu and handed the tout a fifty shilling note – but instead of giving me twenty back, he just pocketed it and moved on to the next person.

”Oi! Give me my change!” I chided.

He turned to me, wide-eyed, and said in Kiswahili, ”Check it out! The mzungu speaks Swahili!”

Every head in the matatu swiveled around and stared at me, in a look-a-talking-farm-animal sort of way.

“I try,” I said with a smile.

”You’re very pretty, lady,” he continued.

”Thanks.”

”Do you have a boyfriend?”

”No. I’m actually married. Sorry, bro.” The other passengers howled with laughter.

”Truth? Show me the ring!”

I held up my hand, revealing a delicate silver band I wear for just such occasions. More laughter, but he continued. Did I have kids? How old was I? How old was my husband? How big is he? How long had I been married? Finally, the mama next to me told him to knock it the heck off, he had disturbed me enough and CLEARLY I wasn’t interested. She then asked me where I had learned such excellent Swahili.

Language WIN.

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Yours truly