Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 4-27-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

John R Bowen


This dissertation is an ethnographic and historical study of the urban transportation system in Nairobi, Kenya and the large youth workforce who operate it. Currently, the informal mini-bus taxi system made up of vehicles called matatus, carries nearly 80% of the urban population in Nairobi on a daily basis. It is, by far, the most popular form of transportation in the country and employs the largest number of young people, as well. This type of transportation is not unique to African countries as mini-bus: 14-32 passengers) and midi-bus: 32-48 passengers) taxis are common in Turkey, Jamaica, Philippines, Russia and Chile and Indonesia. The emergence of this particular mode of transportation often develops from gaps left by the state that are filled by private enterprise or informal entities, the epitome of late capitalism. In Kenya, the vehicles that filled the gap left by the inept colonial infrastructure acted as more than just modes of transportation, they became crucial spaces of exchange, interaction, production and consumption that seemed to perpetually exist just out of the reach of the state. The ability to stay on the edges of state control was an important part of providing mobility for people in a colonial city, underneath an inefficient monopoly system of passenger transport. Throughout the past fifty years, informal transport operators have developed a particular set of skills and strategies to enable them to slip between the fingers of, who were first the agents of the colonial bus company and later, the traffic police, city council askaris: soldiers or guards), gang members and hijackers that populate Nairobi's streets. This skill set includes a complex constellation of practices honed in Nairobi's unique urban environment, practices that are simultaneously esteemed and condemned by the very population that depends on them.


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