Pimp my ride, Kenya-style

Kenyan Matatus

(By Nicolas Delaunay) “Turn on the bass, yeah!” shouts Dennis, conductor and ticket tout onboard the Brain Freeze, an eardrum-bursting tricked-out Nairobi bus studded with blue neon lights.

This commuter bus, or matatu as it is known in Kenya, is like a nightclub rushing down the jam-packed streets of the east African capital.

Deafening music pumps from countless loudspeakers fitted into the vehicle, while clips of skimpily-dressed girls in music videos flash across flatscreen television screens.

And among the 30 passengers there’s neither a grey hair nor a balding head to be seen.

“It’s like a club, this matatu is really cool,” says Mary Nicola, a 20-year-old student with long, bright red braids.

By night the Brain Freeze is still more striking, its mobile sound and light show winning approval on Facebook pages dedicated to customised matatus.

Brain Freeze has only been on the road for a few weeks but it is already making an impression.

Around 90 percent of Nairobi’s commuters use a matatu daily. Competition for customers is fierce and a pimped ride can make all the difference.

For some, spray-painted matatus like the Brain Freeze are a glamorous stage on which to display social status, interests and what’s cool.

Matatus are named after Manchester United footballers, Alicia Keys, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

– ‘Nice paint!’ –

On the Brain Freeze, no detail is left to chance: wheel rims and headlights are metallic blue, the radiator grille is stretched out like a snowplough and at the rear a string of red lights illuminate when the bus brakes.

All in all it cost seven million shillings ($70,000; 61,000 euros) to buy and customise. The owners were anxious to attract a large audience of the young and hyperconnected, so they put a trailer online showing the bus being redesigned.

“This matatu is fashionable,” says Casper, another tout, sunglasses on his nose. He smiles and steals a sidelong glance at Nicola. “If good-looking girls come here, other young people want to come.”

Kennedy Aina, a 22-year old student with four thick silver chains around his neck, fits the Brain Freeze’s target audience.

“The matatu was here when I was done with my class, it has wi-fi and it’s quick,” he says.

Arriving at its destination in a neighbourhood east of Nairobi, Brain Freeze stops a few metres from “Rolling Stone” which, like the 1960s and ’70s era it pays homage to, is showing its age, its once-pristine white paint marked by the years.

Nearby “Wayne Rooney” pulls past Brain Freeze. “Nice paint!” shouts Rooney’s admiring tout, leaning dangerously out of his matatu’s doorless entrance as it roars away.

– Bob Marley pictures –

Nearby, in a warehouse whose roof is riddled with holes, the smell of fresh paint assaults the nose, but Roy “The Great” Mungai — a much-in-demand matatu artist — is unfazed as he adds the finishing touches to a new Rastafarian-themed bus.

The green, yellow and red exterior is adorned with an image of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie while inside are pictures of reggae icon Bob Marley beneath a ceiling decorated with old vinyl records.

Nearby, “Gucci” is ready to go and its owner, Chris Nsungu, is delighted. “Tomorrow, it will slide along the road!” he says.

Another day, another newly customised matatu, and for Brain Freeze and the rest the competition just got a little tougher.

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