UP MAGAZINE Vol 7.07 Photography Issue - Page 30

URBAN PRESENCE A Street Car Named Desire I By David Kaiza Photos Andrew Njoroge t is getting dark on a cold Nairobi Friday evening and the curve at the end of Fire Station Lane is choking in traffic; four lanes have formed on a street two vehicles can barely squeeze through. A sharp, snapping sound draws passengers’ heads left. A Nissan Caravan passenger minivan has its back wheels spinning in a rut. Like a beast heaving violently to free itself from a trap, it jerks back and forth. The word - a loud exclamation - emblazoned on its windscreen “Cheerz”, seems to bob up and down on this miserable, urban scene. Then heads veer right: We watch in envious frustration as the fourth lane lurches forward, the somber face of Jay-Z going past. Just for the four or so meters that opened at the head of the lane, they raised a deafening roar of engines only to stop abruptly. Another matatu is now stuck in our face: “Exotic”, it says of this gloomy, cold air filled with acrid smoke and grey walls with the smell of human waste hemming us in. 10 minutes later, we crawl out of Fire Station Lane towards River Road only to meet an impregnable wall of matatu - big Isuzu beasts, with the forbidding face of the Notorious B.I.G in bling bling, the smiling Nelson Mandela and a rather lifeless Emperor Haille Selasie lined there on their sides. Then the wall moves forward and as our matatu rushes to claim the gap, lurching on the pavement, we reach for handholds as if taking a cue from the writing on another matatu which says “Hold me tight”. We hold tight as we are propelled towards Tom Mboya Street. Amidst riotous wheels and revving engines, scurrying, scared pedestrians scatter over the pavement to give us way. Amidst the deafening beat of Hip Hop, I fail to know how we managed to get out of the city. If as they say Nairobi is a city on the move, then its uncontested prime mover is the matatu: Colourful, intrepid, loud and proud, they give the city the riotous and gay air of a Brazilian carnival without the bonhomie; part celebration, part www.upnairobi.com 30 August 2016 masculine bravado, they communicate a sense of pace and impatience, a virility that is simultaneously impressive and repulsive. “If you really want to understand what goes on in Kenya, you must understand what goes on with the matatu,” Prof. Mbugua wa Mungai, a social scientist at the University of Nairobi says. “The matatu reproduce the structures of power that are used to oppress them,” he says, making other observations that present the matatu men – driver and tout – as contradicted vehicles who figure as freedom fighters but end up transmitting oppression downwards. Sole commute for working and lower middle-class Nairobi, the matatu literally moves millions to and from work daily. If you have just come into the city from the south, where the airport and all that glitter are, what you see as you enter the CBD is a cluster of high rises towering over prim and proper sedans with a smattering of plain white minivans with yellow lines. Across Kenyatta Avenue this remains the case, staying so when you cross Kimathi Street and even Moi Avenue – a proper international city of the be-suited and the well-heeled. Kenya, more Westernised than much of Africa, can afford a sizeable chunk of its citizens the money to buy the newest model of car and hence a certain air of progressive orderliness line these three thoroughfares – which ill-prepares you for what happens once you cross into Tom Mboya Street. The polite, regulated pace of Kenyatta Avenue