The Matatu is a simple story about a village boy from eastern Kenya who takes his first bus trip with his grandfather in a matatu — a popular African mini-bus with the aesthetics and theatrics that come with this popular mode of public transport. During the trip, grandfather tells his youngest grandson an entertaining Kamba pourquoi tale that explains why dogs chase matatus, why sheep just stand around when matatus pass, and why goats run from matatus. In his innocence, Kioko takes solutions contained in his grandfather’s tale to resolve the moral impasse posed in the story.
The interactions between Kioko and grandfather reveal youthful naiveté, the wisdom of elders and the crucial role Kenyan grandparents play in the rearing of grandchildren. Modernity and tradition are subtle sub-themes. Kioko characterizes the youthful promise of a modern nation while grandfather embodies traditional African culture. The matatu — a fast-paced symbol of modern technology — plays a harmonizing role between these worlds. As the matatu journeys from rural village to the town of Machakos, one sees images of typical rural homes, farms with women drawing water in pots, open air markets, women hawkers, and domesticated animals such as goats, sheep, dogs and chickens. Inside the vehicle, Kenyan shillings (coins) are exchanged and passengers in trendy modern dress are issued receipts. The rich illustrations by Ghanaian artist Eva Campbell help readers navigate the story and provide authentic cultural details including Swahili sayings that adorn the sides of the matatu. Missing are translations of the Swahili terms and the role women often play in matatus today as drivers and ticket collectors.
In his author’s note, award-winning Canadian author and storyteller Eric Walters tells us, “Matatus remind us that life is more than a destination, and a matatu is more than a vehicle. Both are a journey filled with bumps, dust, unexpected turns and risks. The secret is to sit back and enjoy the ride.” Highly recommended.
Published in Africa Access Review (May 15, 2013)
Copyright 2013 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Kuria Githiora, Michigan State University