Matatus are East Africa’s brightly colored minibuses that blast the latest hits as they weave in and out of traffic. Inside, strangers strike conversations about politics, the economy and sometimes, the latest fashion trends.
This was the inspiration for Michael Orange, director of the Matatu Festival of Stories, when creating the annual film, art and music event now in its third year. Orange said he wanted a festival that invited people with diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences to share their stories. “It’s about the ability of going someplace together in spite of our differences,” Orange said. “Anyone can get on and anyone can partake in the story.”
The three-day showcase begins September 23 with events alternating between four Oakland venues: The Starline Social Club, The Flight Deck, Duende and Miss Ollie’s. The festival is meant to transport attendees to places around the world. “We take it a step further and say that this matatu is global and it goes all the way to South Africa then to Chicago over to California and back to Ethiopia,” said Maria Judice, producer of the festival.
While the minibuses themselves won’t be on display, the heart of the festival is the idea of mobility that they symbolize. In East Africa, a big portion of the population does not own private cars, so matatus facilitate travel within and between cities. Fares are kept cheap to make them accessible to those from all economic groups. In countries like Kenya that lack a strong public transport system, matatus are the key mode of transport for many people. Matatus are also common in Uganda and Tanzania.
An important goal of the festival is to provide a platform for films that are coming out of the African diaspora, which refers to people of African descent living around the world. “In the United States, black films that are produced domestically sit on the shelf for a long time. Black international films stay on the shelf even longer, and that’s a big problem,” Judice said. “We feel like it’s our job to give them another outlet and amplify their reach.”
This year’s festival will feature nine films, with Necktie Youth screening on the opening night at the Starline Social Club. Directed by Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, the film showcases the lives of best friends Jabz and September as they navigate life in a post-apartheid South Africa. The privileged twentysomethings encounter drugs and sex, mirroring what life is like for some youth living in Johannesburg. The film also shows how the two friends deal with grief when a close friend commits suicide.
For the first time, the festival will not be limited to films alone. It will also showcase music, poetry and dance. Some of the artists featured include poet Saul Williams, Grammy Award winning hip-hop producer Shafiq Husayn, percussionists Black Spirituals and Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancers.
Despite the festival being named after the matatus of East Africa, Orange said it is not an African festival. Rather, they invite people from different walks of life to participate. “It’s all about mobility, diversity and the ability of everyone to partake of these stories,” Orange said. “Anyone can get on this matatu.”
In the same way that matatus are the average East African’s way of getting around, the festival touches on themes that affect regular people in their daily lives. The theme of the festival this year is “The Spectacular Walk of Ordinary People.”
“We have an interest in trying to figure out how ordinary people who aren’t superheroes and aren’t trying to save the day deal with the things that are in front of them,” Judice said.
Red Leaves, a film about an Ethiopian family living in Israel, touches on the themes of “immigration, family and life as an elderly person,” Orange said. In this film, 74-year-old Meseganio Tadela sells his house after losing his wife and sets out for a life on the road, visiting his children. He encounters difficulties as he comes to the realization that he is part of a minority within the Ethiopian community in Israel that has retained their African culture. Despite having migrated to Israel in his late twenties, Tadela himself has remained oblivious to Jewish traditions and hardly speaks Hebrew.
Just as the matatus of East Africa are a perpetual symbol of mobility and dialogue, the organizers of the festival hope to inspire people to continue discussions about Pan-Africanism, or the solidarity of Africans worldwide, beyond the festival. They are currently working to launch an online archive that will house the materials presented at the festival. “The work and the conversations will live forever so people can access the festival in a long-term way,” Judice said. “That’s the matatu and the mobility.”