Jimmy Gathu – Look, Think, Stay Alive

Old school rap, from… East Africa! Matatus are the informal, private transportation options for many Kenyans. These vans are known for being driven recklessly – even off cliffs full of passengers, inadvertently, of course – and result in many road fatalities.

The young drivers typically are required to collect a certain number of fares per day to provide to the employer, and can keep fares above this quota. The incentive is certainly there for matatu operators to fit as many passengers (and luggage and livestock, occasionally) as they can in the vans (or on the vans!). And to get as fast as they can to the destinations to unload their human cargo for more. Hang on to the side if you dare. As government has been closing pick up stations, drivers take to waving down customers.

Drivers decorate the interiors of matatus with flashing lights and religious sayings. Contemporary music (and reggae, often) is played through the stereos of these minibuses.

There are government regulations for safety, but there is no guarantee the vehicles are properly serviced, drivers revel in flouting traffic laws, and enforcement is lax. Most Kenyans don’ t have vehicles and need matatus to get to work.

The name matatu has come to mean taxi, but goes back in the Swahili language to “tatu,” meaning three. It was once three shillings for a ride.

The song has a DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince feel about it (though this video might be an updated remix). The artist is one of the first Kenyan rappers, here imploring matatu drivers to slow down, from 1991. This is rap as public service announcement, for road safety, and may have been funded by an insurance group.

Public service announcements are usually a form of government public policy that uses information and exhortation, often through advertising, to change behaviour. Results for compliance are mixed, mostly because adherence is voluntary.

Despite Gathu’s efforts, today, riding a matatu is not recommended in guidebooks for tourists visiting Kenya. Still, it’s part of the local culture and worth weighing the risk.

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