Matatus in Brooklyn and telenovelas in India

Last night I caught up with a high school friend over dinner in Brooklyn. I learned two fascinating new things about the world.

Matatus in Kampala

First, when I mentioned the 14-passenger vans known as matatus that are so common in East Africa (and elsewhere), she told me that Brooklyn has something similar. They’re known as “dollar vans” — and apparently they are as ubiquitous as they are illegal. One journalist writes:

This is the paradox of Winston’s work: While he is fully licensed, insured, and inspected, his vans are prohibited from doing the one thing they really do — picking up passengers off the street.

David King, from Columbia, quips that all dollar vans are 100 percent illegal (because they work the curbs), but some are 200 percent illegal (because they don’t bother to get licensed in the first place). Winston says police don’t cite the unlicensed vans, which eat into his business, but do go after the licensed ones for the curb infractions. “The law gets made up as you go along,” Winston says, adding that the pink cellphone ad on the van is both an attempt to make a little money as he cruises up and down Flatbush, and a trial balloon to see whether there’s a specific law prohibiting advertising on the vans. Later, one of the 500 or so completely illegal vans pulls up beside him, and in friendly Jamaican patois, Winston accuses the driver of being a terrorist. “It’s not like I hate against them. But I’m running a business and they’re running a hustle,” he says.

More here and here.

I saw something similar when I lived in Chinatown in Manhattan: each morning and evening there were dozens of minibuses, most without any marking in English, taking passengers too and from… I didn’t know where. I just looked them up, and found this yelp review of a service that runs to Flushing.

Takeaway? Informality blooms everywhere, with varying degrees. Public services are complemented by private ones. Everybody hustles.

The other thing I learned came when we were talking about television. I mentioned that telenovelas are shockingly popular in Kenya and Uganda. These are Spanish-language soap operas, terribly dubbed over in English, and broadcast by a South African station (so I assume the shows have an audience elsewhere on the continent). I’ve seen La Tormenta and En Nombre del Amor on Kenyan TV, but I know there are others. Here’s the new thing I learned: apparently India has its own soap operas, mostly in Hindi. They have a similar style — dramatic twists, ridiculous overacting, etc.

Takeaway? Not sure. But I find it interesting that this format seems to work across countries. Does anyone know anything about soap operas as a cultural phenomenon? Even more so, as a cross-cultural phenomenon? I’d curious how they differ across countries, why the Spanish telenovelas are so popular in East Africa, and whether a country like India develops its own for cultural reasons, or just because of market size.