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!)