Kenda Mutongi: Moving People and the Economy

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From Williams Magazine, Fall 2017

Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi by Kenda Mutongi
The University of Chicago Press, 2017


Kenda Mutongi was walking along a street in Nairobi, thinking about what she’d like to research for her second book, when she realized the answer was right in front of her. “Matatus are everywhere, but we don’t know anything about them,” says the history professor. “All we know is their bad reputation.”

Matatu is the word used in Kenya for the minibuses ubiquitous throughout Africa. In Nairobi, they transport more than 2 million people per day, from commuters on their way to work to mothers bringing children to doctors’ appointments and kids headed to school. But matatu drivers and conductors are considered dangerous and are blamed for much of what can feel like the chaos of this large city.

“They are looked down upon and thought to be corrupt,” says Mutongi. “Foreigners consider matatus too dangerous to ride, and they write them off as unimportant. But so many people depend on them.”

In her new book, Matatu, Mutongi traces the history of this industry. “I hope my book helps dismantle the notion that the only way Africans can earn money is if an NGO comes in and sets people to making beads, jewelry or baskets,” she says. “We need to hear more stories like those of the people in the matatu industry, who have created a highly profitable business.”

Mutongi, who is originally from Kenya, has been teaching courses in African history at Williams since 1995. Her first book, Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family and Community in Kenya, was published in 2007.