Rise and fall of the flashy Nairobi makangas

Pedestrians walking between PSVS in Nairobi, Kenya on October 14, 2017. (Courtesy/Gettyimages)

Back in the day, matatu conductors, also known as makangas, were the harbingers of Nairobi urban sub-culture. They influenced the language, fashion and entertainment trends in the city. If makangas were not wearing it, then it was not hip. They had a finger on the pulse of the ever-changing fashion sense.

This was transferred to the matatus they worked in where the name, graffiti, design and music played matched the projected image. In came the ‘manyangas’ and later just ‘nganyas’ for the spruced-up matatus.

These matatus looked like they could fly if they encountered traffic jam. Matatus became the icons of pop culture in the continent. At the height of Koffi Olomide’s popularity at the turn of the century, he visited Kenya and took a ride in a matatu named after him.  

I refer to makangas as a tribe. They have dressing, language and relationship codes with each other. Recently, I hopped into the front seat of a matatu and waited for it to fill up. The conductor requested me to move and let a middle-aged woman sit near the door. I wanted to object but I have a rapport with him, so I obliged.

Later I teased him that he has dropped the young and nimble for more mature and moneyed women. The woman disembarked in a middle-class neighbourhood along the way. That’s when he told me that back in the day, she was the girlfriend to a popular driver who ruled the route. They even had a son together who should now be in high school. Unfortunately, the driver passed away, so they watch over her as good ‘brothers-in-law’.

Those were the days when the most beautiful girls in Nairobi moved with makangas who had style, money and language that was all packaged in urban courage.Young men from well-to-do and middle-class families left school or dropped out of college to join the matatu industry. Meanwhile, their sisters could not resist the allure of addictive romance from well-dressed and street-smart conductors and drivers. If all the children who were conceived when their fathers were makangas could stand up to be counted, I bet that they can elect a Member of Parliament.

They had money throughout the month when young men their age, even if they were working, could only afford to treat girls at the end of the month. The industry was not well regulated which made it lucrative for all the stakeholders. These were the days when we believed you couldn’t be involved in the industry if you were not a thug.

The drivers and conductors, route controllers and their gangs and traffic police officers were all thuggish. They slept after the city had gone to bed and woke up when it was still pitch black. Most of what they did during this time was only known to industry insiders.

Then Michuki happened. John Michuki was appointed minister for Transport in 2003 and got down to work to regulate the industry. Matatus were required to register with the Transport Licensing Board. They later formed Saccos that controlled the routes.

They were expected to carry fewer passengers despite the capacity of the matatu. It used to be four in a row ‘kama orbit’ but the number fell to three. The loose cash that spruced up the lifestyle of makangas slowly trickled to a stop. Michuki also introduced blue and maroon uniforms for drivers and makangas, respectively. They had to be registered with TLB and get a certificate of good conduct. The new dress code was not cool for the suburban cool kid out to impress the girls.

The Nairobi born and bred felt that the industry no longer fed their deep desire for recognition and fast money. Michuki later ended up at the ministry of Interior where he swore to end the Mungiki menace. The makangas were the first suspects so they fled to save their lives.

The Nairobi-borns looked for other avenues to earn a living. This left the industry to ‘wasee wa kukam’– those who arrived in the city by bus from shags. Now the makanga is not bothered with the urban culture and its attendant optics-driven paraphernalia. They are men who fled poverty in the village and all they care about is making a consistent living.

Soon, overheads became a burden for the operators. The spruced up matatus that ruled the Buruburu, Eastleigh, Westlands and South B routes slowly left the scene. There was no need to pump money into unnecessary expenses when the returns were not as good.

As the manyangas faded, the makanga also become the guy next door with, perhaps, a gold-coated tootch. A few investors in South B, Rongai and Buruburu have tried to recover the cool factor, but the industry has never recovered its mojo. Meanwhile, Nigerians became the new magnets for young Nairobi girls dabbling in the love industry.


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