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In Nairobi, Kenya puts brakes on its runaway success

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They have names like "Uprising" and "Da Art of Music." They careen at breakneck speeds down Nairobi's streets, blaring music, often causing alarm. There are 6,000 of them in Nairobi alone, all of them with limited insurance.

They are Kenya's matatus, a rambunctious fleet of 24,000 privately owned minibuses driven mainly by young men barely past their teens. They troll for passengers along arbitrarily established routes, having long ago edged out public transport.

They often are held up as an example of the sort of private enterprise Kenya needs to pick itself up after decades of mismanagement and corruption, much in the way Kenya itself was held aloft by some in colonial times as a model for other governments throughout Africa.

But the industry, itself often cited for corruption, is now struggling with the federal government over new licensing regulations. Lawmakers say they seek to finally get a handle on a business long out of control.

Critics say the industry already pays more than its share of fees - some $4,500 per vehicle per year, counting insurance - and that the new moves are aimed less at safety and improved management than at filling empty government coffers.

"They just want to grab some money," says Titus Kitonga, a pharmacist and regular matatu customer who has to shout over the music throbbing from two gigantic speakers in "The House of Pain," a Nissan minibus spraypainted deep purple with an official capacity of 25 passengers and an actual one of 50 plus.

The matatu's occupants, at least those who can make out what he has said, agree with Mr. Kitonga. "The matatus are there because the government could not provide the service," says Paul Maina, a student in his late teens. "Now the government wants to eat so they say: 'Aha! Let us get into the matatu business.' "


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