UP MAGAZINE Vol 7.07 Photography Issue - Page 31

URBAN matatu culture PRESENCE are. On first contact, they appear too colourful – bright reds and yellows flashing from the distance, scrawled about in cartoon figures and graphics, unserious, a little childish even. Add that to the reckless driving and you are put off by this permissive anarchy. Rather than art appreciation, you are too busy trying not to get knocked down. It is all of the above and more: matatu don’t give pedestrians right of way and when the streamlined private cars of middle and upper class life come into view, they often go out of the way to bully them: At stops in Westland, Buruburu, Eastleigh, Kasarani and elsewhere, they take command of the road, honking and touting beyond what the law allows; antithesis to the polite and the settled. Whatever understanding comes, takes a while. Very few ever really like the matatu and those who don’t mind them, grow older and wiser and want a gentler means of transport. But should you have an artistic, social-scientific slant, you are doomed to be seduced by the matatu: Deceptively repulsive at first sight, the matatu world deepens the closer you get to it and at core, coheres into an immensely complex culture. It is the words and catchphrases on these minivans and buses that are likely to provide the first window into their world “Déjà vu”, “Crème de la crème,” “We still lovin’ it”, “No one like U”; these immediately strike up a cadence – words and expressions you have met somewhere given here without context, growing on, and filling you with curiosity by seeming to gesture at something significant not in sight – interesting, clever, hinting that they know more than their rebellious appearance suggests. “Truss Blaque tattoos”, “Hold me tight” - they run on and once you start collecting these phrases, you can’t stop. “Desire”, “Ecstasy”, “Stunner”, “Contagious”, “Exotic” – the single word variants lull and pull you in. It’s as though the matatu were in such a thrall of – well – ecstasy, that they can only utter one word at a time. The tempo ratchets up, gets frontal, direct: “Blackalicious,”, “Black sugar”, “Hotshorts” (certainly not a misspelling), “Backlash” and “Blacklash”. Something is going on. These deliberate misspellings and coinages veer from the scholarly to the avant-garde, a knowing air struck up – sensuous, critical, teasing, running in short punches the entire gamut in so much of cultural-literary movements, condensing the lofty meat and potatoes of academia. Within a few weeks, you realise that the operative description is “Matatu culture”. What first appeared as chaotic, does have a pattern. Professor Mungai has spent years researching this phenomenon so that he is known in the city as “Prof. Matatu”. He has studied and written extensively about what may be termed loosely as a global, matatu culture, like the Manila Jeepneys which are as colourful, although carrying mostly devotional, religious images; the Nigerian Mummy Wagons, Dakar taxis, Pakistan trucks, to name a few. “What we have in Nairobi is part of a larger phenomenon,” he says. “It is part of a global discourse that has been going on.” He says the practice of writing slogans and painting on vehicular objects, is an old one – names and declarations on boats, push-carts, shark-mouths on the noses of fighter planes and bombers of WWII; closer in our times, Virgin Airlines with provocative statements; slogans on bicycles. He calls these “appropriation of larger narratives”, power contestation for cultural space, often the underdog fighting against established power structures (Virgin Atlantic against British Airways). Closer home, like in American Hip Hop, there was always a racial/colonial history of suppression. “We see an interesting pattern whereby through satire, self-allusion, mimicry, the people who engage in this discourse are affirming black identities.” A naming process, he also says they are subversive attempts to both attack and influence mainstream discourse. Calling it a “semiotic process” – the science of signs – and as signs, can apply to anything so that the face of Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G. both looking slightly pained, sexualized, are as important as the word “Exotic” or “Contagious” in alluding to marginalization (exoticising and othering other races), the use of black masculinity in the Black panther movement. As signs, they are open to varying interpretation. Mungai has studied the history of matatu in Kenya from its inception and says the field has varied since the 60s and 70s, from when religion was a constant theme on the matatu and Reggae – music of resistance – was played and permutations through the years; the Roots Reggae of the early ‘80s, Disco in the later ‘80s and the complex mix as the 90s dawned and droned on with Lingala, Soukous, Techno-Soukous and Hip Hop. With the 90s came the predominance of youth culture, caps worn visor backwards, sagging pants, jeans worn backwards, French-cut hair. In all, was communication of the culture of the marginalized, the suppressed and the oppressed. Perception of the matatu men changed from the 70s when they were seen as hardworking businessmen, to begin in the 80s to be seen as thugs, an image that has stuck since. 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