Africa News blog

African business, politics and lifestyle

Kenya’s traffic – a daily adventure

December 11, 2008

The ancient truck labouring up the hill followed by a long queue of vehicles looked like a typical Kenyan scene — except for the legs protruding from under the bonnet. A Mafia hit? No, the legs were moving. Then I realised the bonnet was jammed slightly open and the man was adjusting some fault to keep the engine running while the truck proceeded.

Even for Kenya this was bizarre, but only slightly more unusual than the daily chaos on the roads, where almost anything goes; from enormous potholes capable of cracking the axle of normal cars, to abandoned or broken down trucks, to the swarms of battered, unroadworthy and brightly decorated matatu minibuses, driven by people whose brains appear to have been removed. A colleague recently saw a matatu swing across three lanes of traffic to smash into an unsuspecting car for no apparent reason. Matatus are the only available transport for many Kenyans but climbing into one is a daily and possibly terminal gamble. They are notorious for terrible accidents, often when smashing into oncoming trucks while overtaking on bends or hills. Matatus, like other vehicles, including huge trucks, often travel without lights at night. Matatus break down frequently, leaving a group of disconsolate passengers beside the road while the driver and tout (who takes the fares) try to change a wheel or mend the engine, creating another hazardous obstruction. Combined with the entirely selfish habits of other Kenyan drivers who think nothing of jamming a junction to get a slight advantage over other traffic, the minibuses cause the daily commute to frequently turn into a frustrating calvary with jams that last for hours. All this is made worse by regulations requiring drivers involved in an accident, even a minor shunt, to desist from moving their cars until the police arrive – which can be many hours.

The traffic police often seem only tangentially interested in the chaos, standing on the verge watching as cars, trucks and buses become increasingly interlocked in flagrant disregard for the law and traffic lights. Sorting out the mess seems important to only a few of them. That is perhaps because their main activity, according to most Kenyans, is to extort bribes to supplement their meagre wages. Their favourite victims are matatus and trucks who are allowed to pass, on payment of small bribes. Traffic experts say the delay caused by police roadblocks can add a day to the journey from Mombasa port through central Kenya to Uganda and neighbouring countries.

Like all criminal activity, this extortion of bribes increases at certain predictable times. On a recent one-hour drive to the lakeside town of Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi, I had to concentrate hard to avoid being stopped in one of at least eight police roadblocks. “Of course, it is Christmas, they need money,” said one Kenyan friend.

Elections also cause the roadblocks to sprout like mushrooms as politicians push police to raise money for their campaigns.

Before Kenya’s bloody election at the end of last year I was stopped at a roadblock, again on the road to Naivasha. Without even the usual desultory attempt to accuse me of some imagined misdemeanour, the policeman shoved his hand through the window and said only: “Two thousand shillings ($25)”. I protested and after much bargaining offered 1,000 as a compromise. “Oh no,” the policeman replied. “My boss says I have to get two thousand from everybody today.”


Its a high time the kenyan matatus drivers behave, something should be done, this is a disease which has been there for years and years, i wonder what measures are being taken by the goverment to ensure the common mwanainchi is safe


The matatu’s in Kenya get away with breaking all the laws because the cops choose to turn a blind eye to any and all infringements when they get a bribe from the offending parties.

It is well known that matatu owners get conned by their crews that a bribe was paid even when this is not the case thereby impoverishing the owners as well. I have observed brand new matatus being pulled over by the cops even when the vehicle is clearly not defective mechanically in any way only for the cop to be paid a bribe for some obscure law that they accuse the crew of breaking so that the vehicle can be left to continue its journey.

In summary the matatu industry is one huge cartel between, owners, crews and the cops which must first be broken before we can speak of enforcement of regulations on our roads. Until this is done, accidents usually as a result of some silly shenanigans by a matatu driver will continue to happen with the shocking regularity that we are seeing after the authorities chose to ignore the Michuki rules that for sometime brought some sanity to the matatu industry!

Posted by J Mwangi | Report as abusive

Hi, Kenya’s traffic chaos is very similar to what goes on in Angola everyday. In Angola people often blame the matatus, or candongueiros as they are called here, for most of the accidents and for making traffic worse. Maybe its about time the government in Kenya or in Angola start looking for ways to improve public transportation.

Posted by Henrique | Report as abusive

what a sad day for the kenyan politics.the so called dream government has literaly slept behind the wheels.the conservation aspect of off we go to the birth place of jesus has i believe another meaning that is a secret
the desired awakening of the valleys of omonzingulu is far to be reached. what has become of our emacipation from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear is also a secret.let our fear be our strength as kenyans.lets make one thing clear,our tears and happiness will always trail us so long as you are mkenya so in the 21 century,lets sail to the moon hopping God will hold the ozone layer

Posted by enock nyakundi | Report as abusive

Driving in Kenya is unique experience, not for the faint hearted.

Posted by Eddie Mandhry | Report as abusive

WELL, funny but quite real though some bits were exaggerated. It’s what makes us Kenya, and though we may want to change, sometimes its all disillusional…

Posted by boyfulani | Report as abusive

While I agree with some bits of your piece, I cannot help wondering aloud where you got some of your facts. Like when you wrote: “Elections also cause the roadblocks to sprout like mushrooms as politicians push police to raise money for their campaigns…”
OH MY!! I have never heard of funds raised through police bribe syndicates. Unbelievable!!!
Although matatu drivers engage in reckless driving, they do not have fairly strong defensive driving skills. From your writing, one would believe that matatus cause/are involved in accidents almost daily.
In Kenya, many of the matatus today are new and not junks on the road. They are lavishly decorated and attract many commuters. In Nairobi for instance, the matatu operators provide the bulk of public transport in the city. We rarely hear of fatal traffic accidents involving matatus in the city.
Nice piece but laden with hyperbole.

Posted by Musa Daudi | Report as abusive

kenya is among the poorest countries in the world ;they should be focusing their energy on poverty alliviation and medical accessibility to its vulnerable majority not to put more money on roads expansion over people

Posted by maleasenya | Report as abusive

corruption in kenya has taken root in all sectors and ways of life here.The so called Gnu is total failure the best it can do is limp till 2012.the population in our cities has continued to grow yet we expect the infrastructure of the 1950s to serve us today.the craziness is out of frustration period.


Just a few points: Kenya roads, police, public transportation and, raised here too, its government, is a bad, bad joke. I live here. I was born here. I pay taxes here. I have to endure the inane politicians who shamelessly exploit their fellow tribesmen for their own personal well being. There is little if any sense of community in this country; it is a petty amalgamation of greedy hucksters, unquestioning knaves, and absurd pontificants blaming every ill of the country on someone, or something else. Accordingly, I shall do something about it. I will leave and take my money and businesses with me. I cannot wait to get the heck out of here. You fellow Kenyans can have this rotten ship. And your crappy traffic.

Posted by aziz | Report as abusive

Kenyans,like no one else in the world,just love disorder.Its just a country where few are straight,and you can’t thrive if you are honest or not ‘of the streets’.a man eat man society and we are going nowhere in comparison to the developed world.
We just hate ourselves and proud of it that’s why Police cannot and will not do anything consistently about the roads(their daily bread)until someone ‘mighty’ dies.
maybe,just maybe,someone will then our madness will explode and someone will take action.

Posted by Nixx | Report as abusive

I agree with most of what you have written but for real some of this stuff could as well be part of a horror movie with shreds of paranoia.I live in Nairobi.Yes l have encountered the needy policemen who love bribes.But for real, there are matatus that are well maintained and police who don’t need bribes.Yes,l have encountered both ‘Nairobis’.Your piece would give someone a heart attack at the thought of living in Nairobi.They would imagine a matatu ramming into cars and people every day all the time and who would want to live in such a city? Nairobi like any other city in Africa has its issues. Matatus is one of them.Bad? Yes. Horrifyingly evil like you put it?Nope!!!aaaah aaah!!!!

Posted by k | Report as abusive

few questions :
- where to find a genuine matatu driver who means well with your Van
- why does police always want bribes (and who’s fault is that)
- why are Kenyans not educated to take care of some1 elses property as if it is their own
- why do Kenyans always give in to false fines by the police, GET UP STAND UP STAND UP FOR YOUR RIGHT
If you haven’t speeded, your insurrance is in order, etc etc DO NOT PAY THE BRIBE and help starting a better matatu industry
BE HONEST to the owner of the Van who has inserted an enourmous capital to try and survive life getting more expensive

ALways easy to judge, but have a look behind the screen please !!!!

Posted by Mwende | Report as abusive

I am from Nigeria and this story sounds as if it is happening just outside my office. It is the same all over Africa. It seems that the whole aspect of sub-saharan Africa is chaos, incompetence, weak institutions, political brigandage, disdain for each other, low self-esteem and corruption. Perhaps, of all the worlds’ races, the African (culturally and historically, not geographically)was the least prepared for the demands of modernity. We seem unable to come to terms with the structures and functioning of the modern state.

Posted by Fola Arthur-Worrey | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see