In this work, I investigate how matatus (plural for three in Swahili) occupy public spaces in Kenyan cities and towns as gendered entities and as a symbol of nationalism. As the main means of public transportation in Kenya, matatus are unique, each has its own name that travels its distinct routes. Greatly influenced by Western mass media, pop culture, and celebrities, they’ve proliferated Kenyan cities as glamourous entities, pimped with flashing lights, Western pop, Afro-pop, and dancehall music. Riding a matatu is an overwhelming sensory experience of overly loud music, repetitive horns, whistles, and the incessant visuals from TVs and flashing lights.
The consumption of western mass media has created these products that have become part of Kenya’s national identity. The decoration of matatus is a collage-like process of identifying famous Hollywood celebrities, musicians, fashion houses, and spray painting them on buses. They’ve become gendered objects that are masculine and predominantly operated by male entrepreneurs who also decorate them. Matatus have become a stage to perform new forms of masculinity using sound, to makangas (conductors) performing tricks on the side of cars.