Culture may simply be defined as a way of life of an identifiable group of people. Culture encompasses language, primary beliefs held by the group, rituals and traditions, a social structure with hierarchies, social norms, and taboos economic and political systems. As long as one can clearly create or define the foregoing aspects of a culture, a new culture can be created at any time. This paper focuses on the matatu culture in Kenya.

Matatus are minibuses used to provide public transport in cities and towns in Kenya. The matatu culture derives its name from the word matatu and revolves around these minibuses. Every aspect of the matatu culture revolves around the minibuses. The people who subscribe to the culture include the owners of the minibuses who invest their money to build mobile discos and art galleries which are the hallmark of the culture, matatu crew who are at the frontline, passengers and  fans of matatus who are essentially the followers of the culture.

As mentioned in the introduction, one of the things that set apart a culture is language. A culture may use an already existing language, create a new language or codify an existing language. Communication within the matatu culture is done using sheng. Sheng is a language that is a fusion of English and Kiswahili. The language used to communicate within the matatu culture also incorporates a few words from other languages. It is not easy for people who do not subscribe to the matatu culture to understand the language speaking within the culture. As such, sheng may be regarded as a language on its own. There are in fact some words that are neither English nor Swahili but are indigenous Sheng words.

The second key feature that defines a culture is the beliefs held by the group. To the matatu culture, music is sacred. The matatu culture keenly follows pop music. Music is the pulse that keeps the matatu culture moving. To keep up with the culture one has to keep up with the latest pop music. Pop music may also  be described as the glue that binds the culture together. Pop musicians are like gods; their portraits are prominently displayed in the buses which are like shrines or sacred places for adherents of the matatu culture. The second belief held within the culture albeit indirectly is that speed is of the essence. The minibuses in the matatu culture are always in a rush. For passengers, getting to their destinations within the shortest time is an ideal. For the matatu crew and the owners of the minibuses, rushing to get to destinations means more money at the end of the day. 

The matatu culture keenly follows pop music. Music is the pulse that keeps the matatu culture moving. To keep up with the culture one has to keep up with the latest pop music. Pop music may also  be described as the glue that binds the culture together. Pop musicians are like gods; their portraits are prominently displayed in the buses which are like shrines or sacred places for adherents of the matatu culture. The second belief held within the culture albeit indirectly is that speed is of the essence.

A culture is defined by its social structure. One of the key features of social structure is hierarchy. Within the matatu culture there is no clear hierarchy. There is a symbiotic relationship among the three main groups in the culture. All the three groups need each other at some point in time and consequently there are no clearly defined hierarchies. A passenger will for instance be very valuable to a bus’ crew before boarding the bus and the crew will do anything to get a potential passenger on their bus. Then, the passenger is very powerful. However, once a passenger has boarded the bus, the relationship changes and the crew gain more power. Matatu crew and owners need each other and there is no clear cut definition of who is boss in their relationship. 

Taboos in the matatu culture are related to the ideals of the culture. One of the goals in the culture is for the passengers to get to their destinations the soonest possible. O achieve this, rules that would guarantee the safety of the passengers such as moderating speed and observing traffic rules are disregarded. Instead, it is taboo to act in a manner that would cause delays even by a fraction of a second. It is taboo to take one’s sweet time to alight or board a bus. Instead, boarding or alighting from a bus while it is still in motion is glorified. It’s by extension taboo for older folk to board matatu. The reason for this is that they will find everything about the matatu unpleasant from the loud music to the way they are driven to the fact that they will be required to board and alight very fast It is therefore taboo for matatus in the matatu culture to carry old people. 

The matatu culture keenly follows pop music. Music is the pulse that keeps the matatu culture moving. To keep up with the culture one has to keep up with the latest pop music. Pop music may also  be described as the glue that binds the culture together. Pop musicians are like gods; their portraits are prominently displayed in the buses which are like shrines or sacred places for adherents of the matatu culture. The second belief held within the culture albeit indirectly is that speed is of the essence. The minibuses in the matatu culture are always in a rush. For passengers, getting to their destinations within the shortest time is an ideal. For the matatu crew and the owners of the minibuses, rushing to get to destinations means more money at the end of the day. 

A further key aspect of a culture is its economic system.  A culture needs to have an economic system if it meets the needs and aspirations of its followers and if it is to grow and reach out to more potential followers. The matatu culture has an economic system that supports it. The primary economic activity relating to the culture is the provision of transportation for passengers at a fee. This activity takes place in a world with very little order and respect for the rule of law. In a world without order only the strongest, the swiftest or the smartest will survive. Survival in the matatu culture is determined by how well a minibus is decorated, how loud the music in it is, how recent or pop the music played in it is and how fast the bus can deliver its passengers to its destination. Minibuses aspire to and actually compete to meet these requirements. A minibus that meets these requirements attracts clients who pay for their trips. The most attractive minibus will attract the most number of passengers fastest, take its trips and consequently make the most money. However it will be a matter of time before a more attractive and hip minibus is introduced and the cycle of trying to outdo each other among owners of minibuses continues. The task of passengers in the matatu culture is fairly simple; work and earn normally as other people and then pay their fares to and from work. The passengers are arguably the economic driving force of the matatu culture as they make their decision of which matatu to board based on its looks and sound. The passengers essentially challenge the ability of matatu owners to go out of their way to be innovative in building their buses and to get the latest music. When a new bus is introduced, a new bar is set. Buses that will be introduced subsequently will seek to outdo the earlier introduced buses. During the time that a bus is still new, it can afford to charge higher fares which not only enables the investor to get a return on investment but also encourages the next owner to be innovative and revolutionary in how they build their buses. The matatu culture essentially has an economic system that relies on incomes raised from outside the culture infused into the culture’s economic system.


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