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Karibu Kenya - From Matatus to Uber: A Journey Through Nairobi's Transport Diversity – My Report

Updated: Apr 17

Arrival


What immediately struck me about Nairobi: This city appears as if it has been built right into nature. When I arrived it was dark, a. Friday evening in early September. I had spent the entire day on the plane.


After nearly 10 hours on the plane (of course, without a minute of sleep), I finally landed.

With all my travels, what comes next is always one of the highlights for me - every time I´m in a new place: The first drive through the new city - from the airport to the new home - in Kenya, at least for the next 3 months.


You experience the new surroundings for the first time, the people, the infrastrcuture.

You feel the vibe that this new place radiates and I immediately feel, "Do I like it here or not?"


My friends Larissa and René picked me up from the airport. Together, we are currently building our own organization Future. Empowerment. Africa e.V. (FEA), where we combine our shared passions - the fascination with the diversity of the African continent, especially Kenya.

We want to dispel stereotypes and make up for what was missed during our school years: conveying knowledge and influence about the African continent and at the same time, exerting influence on social justice in Kenya (you can find more information about our programs here Hakuna Mipaka | FEA e.V. (fea-ev.com)),

So, it´s our first joint stay in this country, which happened rather spontaneously.


So, from the airport, your directly past the National Park in Nairobi. One of the peculiarities of this city, many probably know the picture of the giraffes or rhinos against the skyline of a metropolis - that´s Nairobi.


Large billboards offer safari tours. The highway is wide, multi-lane and gives a taste of what awaits me in the next months - lots of traffic.

Further into the city, the skyline gradually builds up. I´m already impressed.


Arriving in the downtown area, the streets gradually fill up with people. "Quite busy for this time", I think to myself - but after all, we are in the capital of Kenya. The vibe is different from that of any other city I've been to so far. So, I´ve already made my judgement that I can hardly wait for the next months.


My apartment is in a large high-rise building, a building full of service apartments, where probably no one lives for longer than a few months. It´s located in a rather western part of Nairobi, in the Westland district.


From my balcony, I overlook the "Central Business District" - CBD - where the tall buildings rise. Many national and international companies are located here. Next to my building is the highway that runs right through the city, divided into two streets on top of each other.

The lower street almost completely traverses Nairobi. There were hardly any times when I wasn´t stuck in traffic here. The upper streetv - trge Expressway - is a similar route. It stretches 27 km across the city from Westlands to Mlolongo. Depending on the type of vehicle, a toll between 150 KSM (Kenyan Shilling) and 500 KSH is due (1.20 USD - 3.90 USD).


The construction of the Expressway is a controversial topic in Nairobi. On the one hand, the goal should be to shorten the travel time between the airport and the city center, but also to generally ease the tense traffic situation. However, many drivers complain about the high fees (according to sources, the average income in Nairobi ranges from 50,000 KSH top 80,000 KSH, approximately between 350 USD and 600 USD).

On the other hand, the Expressway is often discussed because the construction was fully financed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation. In return, the company receives the revenues from the Expressway until the construction is amortized. According to the Kenyan government, this should take about 27 years.


"Chap Chap" or "Boda Boda"?


So, I update the Uber app— in Cologne, I hardly ever use Uber— and already I'm faced with the first choice: Which Uber do I call now? Uber X, and what on earth is a "Chap Chap"?

It's the same in the app. The rate for the Chap Chap is significantly cheaper. So, this is the next question for my friend, who explains to me that Chap Chap are smaller cars, very boxy in various designs, operated by private drivers. I'm very curious as I order my first one.

I only learned what "Chap Chap" means some time later. Chap is Swahili and means "fast." Chap Chap accordingly means "fast fast". Actually, the choice of name can only refer to the waiting time, as it is indeed remarkably short, the duration of the ride cannot be it each time. And so, I sit alone on my first ride on the way to Karen, a neighborhood further south, and observe attentively for the first time the city in daylight.


Everything is so green, such big trees, so many plant stalls. I don't know what I expected, but this wasn't it. At the traffic light, I notice the many scooters squeezing through the waiting cars. Many of the drivers wear an orange vest and have people, groceries, or furniture on the back. My personal record is held by the scooter driver who transported another person on the back of his scooter. My driver tells me that scooters are called "Boda Boda" here, another popular means of transportation in Nairobi. The name immediately rings a bell, I've read it before when I ordered the Chap Chap via the Uber app.

I'm excited; you can also order a "Boda" through the Uber app—taking a helmet, however, is at your own risk. A Boda is probably the much faster way to get around Nairobi. By car, the journey from my office to home takes about 10 minutes - during rush hour, it's 60 minutes.

So, you can imagine how often I resorted to the Boda, after overcoming the shock of the first ride. The driver arrived, we were two. I sat together with a friend on the back. Apparently, the driver was eager to reach our destination as quickly as possible because he took the highway—albeit in the opposite direction. So, the three of us sat on this small scooter, and I dared not look forward anymore. After about 10 minutes, we arrived safely at our destination. From that point on, I only took short trips with the Boda, avoiding the traffic definitely outweighed.

In retrospect, I can say that the traffic stressed me out at first—and if you really need to get somewhere urgently, you'll just be nervously shifting in your seat— but over the course of my time in Nairobi, I accepted that I can't change the situation—I'll arrive when I arrive. So, more serenity is definitely a takeaway for me.


Matatus


Tranquility is definitely needed when navigating Nairobi with other modes of transportation. Most of my coworkers in Nairobi commute to work using a Matatu. These are private minibuses used as a sort of shared taxi. Costs vary widely, ranging between 50 KSH and 100 KSH (0.40 USD and 0.80 USD) depending on the route, making it more affordable for most Nairobi residents than a ride with the Chap Chap. Over 70% of all commuter trips in Nairobi are made with the Matatu.


Matatus characterize the cityscape of Nairobi. During my first ride through the city, I noticed them because the small buses are often painted with portraits of famous people (mostly from the hip-hop scene) or slogans. They are often hard to ignore, as loud music and colorful lights emanate from the buses.

Although the minibuses are privately owned, there are strict government regulations regarding safety. Among other things, speed regulators and seat belts must be installed. Boarding and alighting do not take place at bus stops. If you find yourself in Nairobi and see many people waiting by the roadside, the likelihood is very high that they are waiting for a Matatu.

The timing of the next one is uncertain; you simply wait along the fixed route on the street and hope that the next bus is not yet full. During rush hour, Matatu´s usually only operate between a single pick-up and drop-off point.


There was a small surprise for me: there are more cyclists in the city than I had expected, especially considering the few to non-existent bike lanes. Every month, there is a independently organized bike demonstration advocating for more safety in traffic and more bike lanes.


There are various ways to get around the city. Which one you choose probably depends mostly on the budget and time you want/can invest. Since I frequently receive questions about safety aspects, I'd like to mention that I always felt safe and comfortable when traveling in Nairobi. All drivers were very friendly, and a conversation is definitely worthwhile to learn more about life in Kenya.


I'm excited to regularly share my personal travel reports, including some interesting facts about Nairobi and Kenya, through the FEA blog!

The next topic will be the very innovative and digital payment system, which will probably make some Germans jealous - certainly me.


If you have any questions or comments, you can reach me at julia@team-fea.com.


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