Get on the Matatu

If you ever find yourself in Africa, one of the things that should find its way onto your bucket list is taking a ride on the local bus.  In Nairobi, this would be the “matatu.”

Operating solely on your “sixth sense” you will locate the bus-stop according to where everyone else is standing.  It is by the grace of others who are willing to assist that you board the right bus.  The bus (or matatu) rolls up to the stop looking like a left-over 1940’s school bus with a fancy paint job, and by fancy I mean anything goes.  This day we would get a spattering combo of yellow and pink.

Tattooed across the front wind-screen in giant letters is “God with us.” and suddenly you start saying your own kind of prayer.

Thanks to the driver’s assistant, you confirm your destination and the price, but this is all done within a matter of seconds because the bus only makes a rolling stop.  Bet you didn’t think this 40-something year-old woman could jump on or off a moving bus, did ‘ya?

Taking a look around the bus you are left with 2 choices… to be annoyed and intimidated by your surroundings or embrace them.  Music booming so loud that every part of your body throbs, sitting close enough to your neighbor you are practically in his lap, and questioning if you will EVER recognize the stop you need, is oh so in-your-face contrary to your western ways.  Let’s face it, there is a certain degree of fear about taking public transport in cities like Nairobi.  It is a big stretch for most of us Americans.  Geez… most Americans I know can barely manage the idea of taking public transport in their own cities!

The thing with being irritated or annoyed (or afraid) is that it places a wall squarely between you and everything else.  Embracing the same…. you step in.


What I found inside that bus was a kind, older gentleman who made sure that I had paid the right price and made sure we got off at the right stop.  There was beauty in his hospitality…reaching out to a stranger.  And on the way back we found a young man who in all his joy, laughed and smiled as we all bounced our way around the back seat, colliding and bumping along as the (certainly) crazy driver made his way through the streets, and again, helped us find the right stop.

Here is the difference between taking a seat and minding your own business, and sitting next to someone and leaning in with a smile, a greeting, and a willingness.

Get on the bus.

We decided on an Ethiopian restaurant.  This place is run out of a family home, so you don’t actually get the benefit of a sign out front.  You look up and down the street searching for clues of the restaurant, which thankfully, had the good sense to paint the words on the outside gate.  All 10 of us entered.  Me, my 3 boys, another mom and her 3 kids, and 2 tag-along kids who didn’t have visiting families for mid-term break.  Yep…you got it, 2 moms and 8 teen-agers.

We filled their living room.


The best editing I could do… we were, in fact, in the DARK.


I’m not sure why the restaurant owners decided to not turn on the lights, but we were, in fact, sitting in the dark, with exception to 2 candles. The owner decided for us what we would eat for the evening and we waited, in anxious and ravenous anticipation of a delightful Ethiopian meal.  Waited…we did.

You can imagine how the time unfolds with 8 teen-agers.  Did I mention only one of them was a girl?  Yep…you read right…7 teen-age boys, sitting in the home of an Ethiopian family, waiting for their FOOD.  The worst offenders (one of which belongs to me) wore the baskets which are meant to cover the food… on their heads….while ensuing a world federation wrestling match on the couch (for which I am positive will not survive the evening) and shouting at what I think is at the top of their lungs.  The wadded up napkins being thrown through the air in were most definitely a sad attempt at basketball, and believe it or not… we had one “de-pants-ing.”  These guys are funny.

The arrival of dinner brought the lights with it.  They cheer in unison and the ravenous devouring of more-food-than-you-can-imagine takes place in less than 5 minutes.  It fills my soul to watch these guys fill their bellies.


Proper dining room behavior…uh…no.

As mom, I could step in and get these guys to “straighten up” but I want to do a different kind of stepping in.

I found joy there.  I found joy in seeing kids at play… true play…where they can be goofy and stupid and laugh with abandon, and each one is included, a part, and welcome. Ahhh… the heart of God in 10 playful teenagers.

The owner of the restaurant walked us out as we finished with the biggest smile I think I’ve ever seen on a man.  I apologized for the mess and the rowdy kids.  In his broken English he thanked me and said that his heart was full because the boys were at home in his home.  He asked us to come back.  He said the joy was all his.

Get on the bus.

Getting 3 teen-aged boys to pack their backs is really the equivalent of herding cats.  Just as you get one on track, another leaves the room.  You locate him and re-focus his efforts, and another goes out.

After receiving an email from the office staff at the school announcing that the RVA school bus will be loaded and leaving Nairobi at 2pm prompt, and that to get those boys up to the school without the bus will run me upwards of $70… I am focused.  No one leaves the room until they are packed.  Period.

We scurry out of the guesthouse and make our way to the designated meeting place (along with about 40 other students and a few parents) and wait.

And wait.

So much for 2pm prompt.

Our collective African experience keeps the crowd calm.  No one complains at the tardiness of the bus, which is now an hour late, because we all know what being on time in Africa means.

Then we see the bus… turning on to a street, not the parking lot where we were waiting.  The equivalent of 2 city blocks away, the bus is late and it is in a different place.

We’re hot, tired of waiting and we have to haul all their things back to where we started from.  And suddenly, I don’t want them to get on that bus.


In a flash, the extra hour and the walk back become the most important, best part of the entire weekend and my aching heart searches fruitlessly to find ways to make time stand still.

I thank God for the last moments with them in the parking lot… for the crazy Ethiopian dinner, and the wild ride on the matatu.  I thank God for the bus that my children so willingly ride… to play in the home of an Ethiopian family…without abandon, and I thank God that He provides us every opportunity to stretch and challenge our western ways so that we can meet His joy on the bus.

Embrace the ride.

Love, Jennifer



2 thoughts on “Get on the Matatu

  1. Jennifer, I want to talk with my life group about sending some school items over to your part of the woods..what is needed? Stephanie

    Sent from my iPad


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s