"Come One, Come All" by Mateo Kavvalakis.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
by Margaret Muthee
I hate it when someone pukes in a matatu. We are barely halfway into the one and a half hour journey to Machakos when braaaagh! from a grown man. The people behind me console him, I want to curse him. Soon after, the reek of it reaches every nostril.
The lights have just turned green at the Nyayo Stadium roundabout and the bus veers off racing like a whirlwind as it zooms down the road. For now, the traffic is light, so we keep moving. A glimpse of old trains sitting on still-tracks at the Nairobi Railway Museum reminds me of my younger days, when I’d board trains to Mombasa.
“Wewe buda, my money,” the man two rows in front of me says to the conductor as the bus halts at the next stop. The man is foreign — probably Somali, if I can tell from his accent. The girl on his left is draped in a bui bui.
“But you gave me a hundred!” says the conductor.
“Stop fooling around, I gave you five hundred.”
The conductor ignores this and goes on with his business — collecting money and shoving more people into this already full matatu. It’s awfully hot in this 32-seater bus, now crammed with close to 40 people.
The old matatu has newly refurbished seats. I like their furry, homely feel; their red matches the colour of the ceiling. The spaces above the windows are dotted with posters — images of musicians, pastors and other notables. Wangari Maathai, Abraham Lincoln and Malcom X glare at me from the right, while Martin Luther is the main man on the left. Shania Twain’s You’re Still The One blasts from the four speakers placed at each corner of the roof. This reggae version does not sound as good, and I wonder why the conductor and driver have to keep it this loud.
When the conductor makes his way in my direction, I beckon him.
“Nini?” he asks.
“Young man, my eyesight is still intact. I saw him giving you five hundred.” I point at the Somali with my walking stick.
The stick falls off my palm and tumbles to the floor. It is dark brown, of strong mahogany, and was passed on to me by my late father. When one of the passengers returns it, it somehow feels more jagged.
“He gave you...five hundred.” Two ladies in front of me back me up.
We are stuck in traffic for a while before the rickety matatu rolls on its abused tyres again. Mombasa Road can be such a headache. A glimpse outside the window brings me buildings that seem to have been dumped here in a line. A church, petrol station, restaurant, and business park. Vehicles for sale are seated in a yard like siblings who won’t talk to each other. I am soon distracted by people using the foot bridge. They must spend quite a bit of muscle there. From my view, the staircase is like a misplaced gateway to the skies, arched to connect to the other side of the road. It seems to climb for an eternity before you can see its end.
I strain to stretch, reaching out towards the window. My bones ache. They were once lovely bones, able to do everything I set them up for. Now they ache. And then there’s this shell of puke. The conductor should have cleaned it up, rather than covering it with sawdust. When I finally manage to reach my window, it won’t open.
The matatu smells of sweat, carrot mint and a newly opened bunch of mitumba clothes. Who is carrying those? Looking around, I am more than convinced that it is the young lady seated across the aisle in the row in front of me. She looks back and takes notice. I have been staring at the back of her head for a while now, it seems. Her crescent moon smile fades away from view as she turns away. Something about her reminds me of my Jane. Perhaps that smile. My sweet Jane always seemed happy, even when a tornado was blowing in our backyard. Death can be such a thief!
Besides the sound of the engine and the rickety body of the bus, silence sates itself amongst us until my phone rings. It’s my daughter. Had she found out I am gone? But no, she is just doing her duty, carrying out her weekly chore.
“Yes, Joyce, I am very well. The Home attendants are treating me well,” I say, after her usual minute of inquiries that never vary. “In fact, the doctor just left my room now.”
Some of my co-travelers laugh when I end the call, either surprised by the fact that I speak fluent English or that I lied to my daughter.
“But, Pa, why would you lie?” the lady next to me asks.
Why shouldn’t I, when my only daughter put me in a Home? But who the hell does this lady think she is, anyway, to ask? I ignore her. I have been in this world for almost a century and she thinks she can second-guess me, give me a single lesson about life? I honestly feel like pulling her hair.
My thoughts are interrupted when the driver almost collides with an oncoming truck. His swerve slightly off the road saves us. One shout in Swahili catches my ear:
“Stupid driver! Do you think you are ferrying potatoes?”
The rest of the passengers follow suit, sharing their distaste at how the driver is navigating the road. Motes of dust from the risen gravel settle on everything and everyone. The driver drives more carefully.
“Shukisha!” says the Somali when we stop next.
“Give him his money,” I repeat. The rest of the passengers back me up again. It feels good. The conductor, a man too old for this with his receding hair with wisps of grey, glares at me. But he gives the Somali his money. The Somali nods a thank you as he slides from the matatu.
We drive along, I am barely paying attention to the countryside. Eventually, we pick up a passenger to replace the Somali.
“Beba beba!!” the conductor calls out.
“But the bus is full!” I shout to the driver.
The smell of vomit has gone, I notice. The girl in the bui bui has now struck up a conversation with the man beside her.
I smile at the girl whose smile reminded me of my Jane, before getting off at the junction that leads to Machakos People’s Park.
“Go well, father,” she says.
I straighten my limbs as much as I can. I wave at the bus and then make my way down the road. The road seems completely deserted. Does anyone ever come to this place? Jane and I married here, and I haven’t been back since.
I walk on, my stick biting the tarmacked road. When a young couple, walking hand in hand, appears from the corner, I am relieved. I ask the direction to the park, and they urge me forward. The sun’s golden hue sinks into the hills. I hope my feeble legs carry me there before twilight.
Margaret Muthee is trained journalist and freelance writer living in Nairobi, Kenya. She is keen on developing her creative writing skills, and has published poetry with Amka: Space for Women’s Creativity. This story was written during the 2015 Writivism Programme, with the assistance of mentor Richard Ali, and is her first publication of fiction.