Taking the Matatu

Taking the Matatu Kigali

Rwanda exports sea weed to the sushi-nation of Japan, and in return gets run-down mini-vans. These are what we in kinyarwanda call ‘matatu’, but what an expat more often would refer to as a ‘bus’, but that may also be known as a ‘taxi bus’ or simply ‘taxi’ (incomprehensibly confusing, I know.) In general, though, just use ‘matatu’.

(Sometimes ‘matatu’ is also used for the new and bigger white buses that only run between the main stops of Remera, Gikondo and Kicukiro. They cost a little more, but are considerably more spacious, probably safer, and hassle-free to get on and off.)

A normal mini-van can seat around 12 people, but the matatus can fit between 20-30, as well as numerous goats, chickens, suitcases and possibly a few cauldrons. Sadly, this has nothing to do with magic, but everything to do with installing extra seats, cramming together and sitting on each other’s laps. For the price you pay though (150-250 RWF), it’s a good and relatively safe way to get around Kigali.

As with public transportation in any country, the main challenge for a foreigner is to figure out which bus to get on. In many cities this issue is accommodated by making a map of the bus lines. In Kigali they felt it would be better to decorate each bus in a unique manner. You will therefore see (and hear) the ‘Usher’ bus in Nyamirambo, whereas the ‘Michael Jackson’ goes out towards Remera, and ‘Arab Emirates’ goes through Kiyovu. If the matatu bear no decorations, there will be people yelling the destinations.

After a while you’ll start to recognize which matatus go where, but until then the best bet might be to just ask for help. Passengers and drivers alike will be more than happy to show you to the right matatu, explain where you need to get off, or where you need to change buses.

As mentioned earlier, an impressive amount of people can be squeezed into the matatu, and when many people are anxious to get on, it’s wise to be careful. In rush hours, people can get downright violent when trying to secure a seat, and don’t think smiling and letting people pass you will get you anywhere. I have seen an old man being stepped on, and a pregnant lady being pushed to the floor. This is no joke, people, and there is no telling when the next matatu will come along! So just get over your inclination to treat people politely (yes, even after they showed you which matatu to get on), and start elbowing your way in there before the cunning nun with the cane beats you to it!

On most matatus, you pay after you get on, and often right before you get off. Unless you’re wearing your kaki shorts, knee socks and binoculars, they won’t charge you a tourist price. Depending on how many stops you go, the price varies between 150-300 RWF, so just hand the ‘conductor’ a couple of coins and wait for change. If you’re seated in the back of the matatu, hand the money to the guy in front of you and he’ll see to it that you’ll get your change back. When you travel with other muzungus, they’ll always assume you’re paying together, so make sure you point at yourself while paying unless you feel charitable toward your fellow expats.

When you need to get off at a stop, you can either signal to the conductor, or simply bang your hand (or better yet, a coin) at the roof. If this does not seem to help, you can say ‘siggara’ which is the kinyarwanda phrase for ‘please driver, I need to get off here, thank you’.

When dusk falls, and the Kigali lights lay as fairy dust across the soft hills, many matatus turn into rolling discos (wohoo!), christmas lights and all. On evenings you find yourself without any place in particular to go, why not jump on a matatu, and get off when the music gets too ear-deafening? A great way to explore new corners of Kigali (and possibly be mugged, but hey, that’s pretty exciting too!)

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12 thoughts on “Taking the Matatu”

  1. I simply just enjoy every aspect of you site, besides the invaluable information you guys provide, I often find myself laughing out loud at your Reviews or Articles, you seem to understand Kigali inside out, (spot on on the ruthless rushing for the matatu seat). Thank you and keep it coming.

  2. the site looks fantastic!!! I’d also add that on most (not all) of the matatus the name of the neighborhood/final destination will be printed somewhere on the rear of the bus. And all buses going in the same direction line up together, so hop on the one that looks the fullest because that one will usually be leaving next.

  3. Its actually pronounced as “ndacigara” or “cigga hano” Make sure you say it right where you want to get off. Otherwise, you might get dropped off before or after your final destination.

  4. Nice article! I enjoy reading it. It made me miss Kigali though.

    A quick remark here: I do not think those taxis are called Matatu in Rwanda. I do believe that that is a name given to taxis of that kind but in Kenya or Tanzania, not in Rwanda.
    In Rwanda, the mini buses -like the one shown on the photo above- are called “Twegerane.” This is a word that literally means “let’s squeeze out”. So in other words, it’s a kind request to the person that has already a seat to let you sit besides him/her despite a little room for you guys.

  5. i love this article, this is quite similar to kenyan style of getting into a matatu especially in the evening…….. i cant stop cracking my ribs….so we r not alone

  6. I agree with Mij, Matatu is not the names of public buses in Rwanda but twegerane is. Could you rectify that. I have a feeling the author of this article must have lived in Kenya for long. @Simon i won’t be suprised if you are kenyan 🙂 kenyans are becoming so many that maybe now the buses are called matatus too

  7. @Mij&Natacha,It’s true that Matatu is not a reknowned name in Rwanda but even those Twegerane are disappearing these days being replaced by Coaster bus which are more luxurious and comfortable.

  8. Hi all, since it’s under transportation I wanted to let you know that there is a bus map of Kigali, there are six maps all of which show most of the bus routes operating in Kigali. the link to the KBS bus map is http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=68b0c23fe2ef4c578b584aedc9d68949

    … Here, you can click on the buses and it will show you what the name of the stop is. I can also post these maps on the site, if i only knew how to…hope it helps those lost ones out there…

  9. Nice web.. Good job,. Though update about transport.. Matatus dont work inside kigali anymore + i heard there is a 4g wireless in all kigali buses

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