It is midnight and this could be the last stop before the last stop. In the previous stop, I checked into a public toilet and paid ten shillings just to throw up. Nausea had been building up I guess from taking in the stuffy cocktail of smells in the bus. A cocktail that was the recipe of strong scents — smelly feet mixed in the unmistakable waft of smoked fish and cheap perfume odours. It hasn’t helped matters that I have been sitting next to an old woman with a rather strong natural smell. I have mild Hyperosmia and today I forgot to carry a piece of ginger with me to chew when the attack comes.
But for these negligible wrinkles in my itinerary, I am on schedule and generally speaking, I am fine. I am even sober. Something I haven’t been able to achieve for a long time. Could it be anxiety? This being a possible last stop before the last stop, I frisk my pockets and heave a sigh when my fingers grasp on a wallet. I am further relieved when my eyes catch the sight of my sling bag huddled in lots of other bags and sizeable suitcases like it is scramming for its rightful place among its unequal occupants. In my heart of hearts, I am certain it is not as ostentatious as its peers who might have stories to tell of such journeys tucked secretly in their experience and perhaps more valuable details within them judging from their hefty bulging and sizes. The details in my bag are brief. There within lies a couple of shirts, t-shirts, three pairs of trousers one of them a pair of jeans, a bottle of mild deodorant, copies and originals of my academic transcripts on top of five boxers. I am tidily equipped, ready for my expedition.
It is her, the one seated next to me, the old woman — my companion. She riffles through a rustic handbag gets out a pair of large spectacles which she proceeds to wear and scans further through her property. From the dark recesses of her search, she hooks out a crumpled thousand shillings note.
“Two sausages and chips.”
I nod as I take the note.
“That will cost two hundred.”
I nod again.
She adjusts her spectacles. I cannot nod, now I must speak.
“Koi you are not alighting here?”
“So you will not evaporate?”
“I have no magic.” I say and nod to persuade her I will not.
“God bless you.”
I go out for my errand. There is a queue of anxious travellers at the overnight Travellers’ Happiness cafe where other buses besides ours have stopped to let passengers who have travelled from various destinations up-country take their late dinner as the bus drivers refresh. There is a clatter of foods — chips, barbequed chicken, beef stew, pilau and even fruits and drinks laid out in refrigerators and drop-in-hot food display warmers, except, I can’t see beer. Why do I love this poison called beer this much that I crave it? There are only assortments of soft drinks like Cokes, Fanta, Sprite and there are even the energy drinks like Red-bull and Monster. How did someone call a drink monster?
When I return to the bus the old lady is as alert as an airport Alsatian sniffer dog.
“The money first.”
I hand her the change. She tucks it away this time in a purse she retrieves from her bra. Then I hand her the food package which she grabs and tears open the stapled white kraft paper wrapper. Inside she gets a white plastic fork with which she stabs the chips and one sausage. Clearly she was starving. With the mumbling of a “thank you my son” she eats. I am relieved to have been of service.
“You are a Nairobian?”
“Going for work.”
“I’m going to tarmac from a friend’s place.”
“And your parents.”
“Primary school teachers.”
“Where did you reach?”
“I have just finished my degree in Disaster Management.”
She takes more generous bites into her chips. The other passengers who had gone to get themselves something to replenish their famished stomachs file back into the bus. Soon all the seats are filled by their rightful occupants and the driver takes his round of confirmation to determine that he has all the passengers on board.
A child is hysterically crying when the bus jerks into motion after the driver reminds us to buckle our belts up. My companion cannot find her belt and I have to help.
“Thank you, my son, God bless you.”
I nod. The bus drones away. The driver turns off the interior lights. And as if this is a cue, my companion resumes the conversation.
“I am going to see my daughter she is admitted at Kenyatta National Referral Hospital. Two chemotherapy now.”
“Yes, cancer of the breast. They have already cut the right one.”
“Bad. I’m so sorry.”
“Very bad. Just terrible. You see it was discovered at stage three. Do you have siblings?”
“One elder sister who is married and one who is still in school.”
“My only girl and only child. She is thirty-five with no child and so much money, a good job but no husband. I don’t understand children of today. Now she is going to die and leave no child and no husband.”
“She chose a path.”
“A wrong path. Look. I am an old woman who sold fish and took loans besides my teaching to educate her as her father spend his wages on beer. I don’t refuse that she has helped her two other sisters and brother that her father got out of wedlock. But nothing gives a mother joy and peace like when she sees her daughter’s bride price being paid one bright afternoon and children and a son-in-law coming for visits in Christmas. You die in peace. But this I don’t know what to think. Sorry my son if I’m bothering.”
“No, it’s okay. But she chose what life she saw was good for her.”
“The doctor said that if she had gone for screening earlier things would have turned out different but who anticipates cancer?”
The weeping child has calmed probably after breastfeeding. My companion crunches and chews. I am listening to her between the droning of the bus and her chewing.
“When she was a girl I knew she was going to be an important person. She kept her room clean and made her bed every morning during her holidays. She was disciplined in school and received honours. She was in the Christian union and she saved her pocket money which she brought back home to me during the holidays. She never played stupid games with boys. She was always inside her books. How can life reward her like this? But as the Bible says all happens for good for those who trust in the Lord. I trust in the Lord.”
She is done feeding and presses the remnants of chips pieces in the kraft paper into a ball, opens the window and hurls it out.
“But maybe she became what she became because of the father. He always whipped me with his belt when he was drunk. No wonder that beer killed him eventually.”
In the translucent darkness, I can imagine a scowl is on her face.
“After whipping me he would whip her, Koi. Whip her thoroughly. In fact, he would whip her until she peed in her underwear.”
In my mind, something is asking why my companion has decided to find me an appropriate audience for her disclosure. Is it the result of pain or part of acceptance? Maybe it’s the path to acceptance and relief. That inevitable wilderness called denial. Yes. It must be denial blooming into the promised land of acceptance. Definitely.
“When you get a job get a wife. And when you get a wife treat her well.”
“I don’t think I will marry.”
“Eh! What is happening in the world?”
“It’s just that women are cryptic encyclopaedias.”
“And so you want to work, drink beer and father children outside the gates of holy matrimony like some of you?”
“It’s not a sin.”
“Eh! Fornication. That is fornication. And children born out of wedlock have more misfortunes than fortunes later in life. I have seen that.”
“But you see women have become so materialistic.”
“Koi all a woman wants, is care, compassion and love.”
“And listening to her a lot.”
The bus drones against a gushing wind. My companion is getting warmer with me. I am being drawn into her talk and frankly I do not mind a fraction of it. As long as it moves time.
The reason I am on this bus is that I have just cleared school. By school I mean college. The life I have led in college cannot be lived with my parents. Therefore, out of wisdom, as soon as I relayed to them my post-university master plan I moved into action. My father had little to say after all I have inherited his adventurous blood. As for my mother she kept impressing upon me her doubts of my success in Nairobi. She insisted that I take my time and assess the convenience of my plan especially that part of putting up with a friend who is not my kinsman. I reassured her it would be fine with me and surprisingly got backing from the unlikely source of my father who told her whatever the case eventually I would leave home for every man must seek for his own destiny. And that is how I eventually left, after copious prayer from my mother and some envelop in which to my thrill I discovered a whopping ten thousand shillings.
When I started this journey my phone was constantly ringing. Mother kept investigating and interrogating my well-being until I warned her that I had to save the battery to call my friend when I reached Nairobi, otherwise I would be homeless. From then I have not spoken to her. I hope she is fine. I am almost coming to the end.
Sometimes I think but I have no understanding how the two got along until they decided to get married. They seem made from completely different material yet they complement and their union though has had its rough days of storms, it has also enjoyed tranquillity not so common in such unions. My father a man of few words once confessed that my mother minds her business and that you may never see her on the road side or market place loading in the chatter of gossip. And he had said this with such pride and passion that it manifested in an impulsive grin. He certainly was a man at peace with his decision of having married and what does a man seek of a woman if not for peace that comes only from the right woman. As for my mother, she went about her chores like any other woman but when it came to serving meals she always made sure my father got his meals served first, fast and we’ll. She heated water for his bath every morning and evening — my father always had two baths a day, and she made sure we all did what a father would have wanted of his children. And if you proved too much for her hands she would give you up to him which ended up being an experience you hated as long as you had a memory. This was their marriage as I had observed in the past over the years. Our parents and us.
When I tried telling Rowena my long-time Bachelor of Law (LLB Hons.) college student girlfriend that I soon expected her to heat some bath water for me. She was plain and outright, “you are a dinosaur”, then she followed that up with a feminist rant for my enlightenment. I refused to evolve from Jurassic park even with the endowment of her lashing rant. I dumped the whole toxic rant and her out of my life. I was almost done with my fourth year and I needed serious “wife material” not a narcissistic warped ideologue of some political nature who saw everything through her navel-gazing leanings. I wanted a woman not a politician, in short. Now here I am.
“The young people of today what you lack is appetite for patience.”
The bus stops on the dusty roadside. Something is not right. The driver has stepped on the breaks jerking us forward. Many small cars and trucks drive past flashing their lights. In the night sky outside, the moon shines brightly and I can make out a few celestial patterns like the Southern cross and Orion. On both sides of the road there are rocks scattered in cacti and brambles, beyond there are sparse crowns of acacia trees stretching branches around them like wings in flight. The co-driver and the driver get out. Soon they are running around opening tool boxes. Everyone is anxious.
“Is there a problem?” a man who has been on his phone since we set off spurts out an inquiry.
“Nothing to worry about.”
“I have a plane to catch.”
He is scrounging and shuffling in the pockets of a tan leather jacket he is wearing.
“The trouble will be over in a minute.”
The trouble is not over in a minute but we soon are made to learn that there is a serious problem with the engine and the driver has called for another bus from the nearest town to our rescue. The man who has been busy on his phone scowls and clicks resting his chin and temples in his palms.
“This is Kenya.”
Of course he is right. This is Kenya. We are in the middle of nowhere. It reminds me of Rowena my Bachelor of Law (LLB Hons.) ex-girlfriend. We started a relationship and ended up nowhere. She was fond of quipping that falling in love is like boarding a bus or falling in a bottomless pit. You are only sure when you reach the destination and sometimes you don’t. Inside the bus, the lights are turned on but the engine has gone dead. Passengers huddle on their seats murmuring to seat companions. Some reach for their phones and call relatives who are not picking up because it is a time they probably are in the middle of dreams. It is in the region between two and three A.M. Saturday morning.
“I hope no thugs ambush us,” my companion offers such sentiments of hope.
“You know Koi there is a story of thugs ambushing a bus travelling from Mandera in the north. The goons forcefully stopped the bus by placing iron spikes in its way. Do you know what happened next?”
“It’s a fake story.”
An intruder, a nosy girl, about my age pokes into my companion’s story. She swings her head.
“My friends have told me that story.”
She grabs on this subtle olive branch.
“I know it is not true that the thugs forced everyone to strip naked and hug anyone next to them tight facing the bus. That cannot happen.”
“Well, my daughter, it happened. They took away all the clothes and left the passengers naked. And there was a son in that bus travelling with the mother. They stole everything including their dignity.”
“I don’t believe we have such insanity in the name of highway robbers going around.”
“Koi do you believe my story?”
“Anything can happen.”
“Yes. Anything can happen but nothing so damn stupid.”
“The other bus is on its way.” the driver announces with some sigh of relief after a group of disaffected travellers led by the man going to catch a plane pile heaps of pressure on him and his co-driver.
It is getting cold in the bus and I am beginning to feel cramps of hunger. I reach into the seat pocket inches from my knees and retrieve a half-eaten meat pie. All health warnings have been against the consumption of red meat lately. But I love pies of meat and sausages and I’m a believer in the idea that death has no siren so just live your life. There is a suggestion that red meat has free radicals and its massive consumption predisposes many to lifestyle illnesses like the dreadful cancer. So meat is also carcinogenic? Maybe everything we have been eating as human beings is dangerous who knows until the next pernicious disease is discovered perhaps caused by drinking too much water. Shall we stop drinking water then? No wonder my mother always says that if you watch what a chicken eats you will stop eating chicken. To hell. I grab my other half of meat pie and coke. In several bites and swigs my cramps dissipate. My companion opens part of the window. A soft cold wind sneaks in through the opening. The driver turns on the bus FM radio. A gospel worship song — Way maker by Sinach plays. My companion nods and sings along as she adjusts a chequered scarf around her neck leaving it to slide over her chest. I am beginning to yawn.
“You can rest if you are tired. I’ll wake you when the other bus arrives.”
But I yawn and I yawn again. The music is soothing. My companion adjusts her glasses and grins knowingly. It is inevitable. I doze off.
Immediately, I fall into a dream. I am boarding a plane to New York. I arrive at Heathrow airport from JKIA a board Kenya Airways and I am received by British officials. They tell me that I am under arrest for sneaking illegally into the UK. They are nasty to me and I am on the receiving end of derogatory terms in heavy British accent I cannot make out. What irks me is that my documents are confiscated and a burly English officer blatantly tells me I am to be deported. The country as the rest of Europe takes seriously to the rise of illegals he shrieks. So I am already illegal, whatever that means. There is no New York, there is no America for me. I slap the man who has shrieked at me and break into a run. And fire is opened from a semi-automatic rifle. I dodge several bullets but one big one is coming at my forehead like the swing stone of David. Three metres, two metres, one metre…wake up get your bags. It is my companion rousing me. The other bus has arrived.
We all collect our bags, ourselves and other treasures which we bundle into the new bus. Our journey resumes. Everyone is quiet and many resume sleep. I am hoping that in my dream I did not fling my arms around or do something warranting funny looks. But so far I haven’t seen any. So I am fine. So far so good. Perhaps I can chat up the nice girl, the intruder into my companion’s conversation. She is a nice Kenyan girl, typical of them, especially college going ones like my Bachelor of Law (LLB Hons.) ex-girlfriend. They are boisterous and outgoing although they prefer being seen as assertive and lionesses of the jungle. They dress colourfully mostly in new trends cut from Kardashian fashions on the Hollywood E show or their binge-watching of sleazy TV series. Their heads tend to have flowing wigs or long braids. Their lips veneered with lipstick, which could be a coloured one — blue, pink, beige or purple, name a colour. And they stick their phones before their faces peering through fake glasses with geeky appearances, that is if they are not trying to poke their noses in a story. That is the stereotype which my companion’s story intruder, the girl almost my age, fits but without the fake geek glasses and flowing wig.
“Quite a journey.”
I make my opening remarks. She is seated on the velvet seat beside mine.
“This bus company always behaves like this.” She swings her head.
“Too bad someone is going to be late for a plane.”
“If he was telling the truth. Don’t trust everything you hear on a bus.”
“Even if I hear it from nice long braids?”
“Huh. Not that nice.”
“It could pay a plane ticket.”
She blushes. I throw in more.
“The price of looking good maybe is high.”
The grin fattens beyond the blush.
“I can’t argue.”
“Visiting my man.”
The mention of “my man” seems to say something of “you are no man for me” and it deflates my reservoir of good humour.
“Must be serious.”
“It is not always that serious, is it? You men are just men however much you are loved.”
Usually I don’t like such pathways of conversation. But I might just as well have fun and escort time.
“Some of us truly commit.”
She gives me a funny face. The interior lights that have been on are turned off.
“Stuff from Hallmark romantic movies.”
“But you have a committed man.”
“He is my man when I am there.”
“Even when you are away.”
“Trust is from the dinosaurs. The word today is convenience.”
I can’t help grinning and sympathising with my kind.
I scratch my head.
“Waiting for graduation.”
“You mean going to tarmac.?”
I like her bluntness.
“All the luck you need in the concrete jungle.”
“Yeah, all the luck I need.”
The bus heaves on a bump and groans. I shift in my seat.
“Relish the moment.”
She goes back to her phone and I lean back in the comfort of my chair discovering that my companion has been snooping into our conversation.
“Looks a nice one.”
“She is nice.”
“You like her.”
“I saw the look on your face when she said she was going to see her man.”
“Don’t worry Koi. I talk too much and poke my nose more than enough. But she looks like one of those city college girls who will be sitting with their legs up on the table as their husbands wash the baby.”
There is a mischievous grin on my face.
“And what is wrong with that?”
The girl drops her phone on her lap. My companion has been intentionally audible.
“If you want total submission to go back in time. We are libertarian women of the new millennium. This is a brave new world.”
“You are breaking marriages and tradition with your libertarianism. Even the Bible says a man is the head of the house and a wife should submit to her husband. You girls want to be heads. It is wrong.”
“I am a woman before I am a wife. And anybody can be ahead of the family. For ages, our voices were trampled on by your so-called tradition, and marriage was a cage that locked up a woman and freed the man.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand. I understand it is different now I understand that a husband should not be a slave owner and a wife the slave.”
“But don’t you think you get it wrong when you believe in the idea that being a woman is not being a wife in a marriage. That they are two separates. The bible says the man and woman become one in marriage. At least from what I have seen from my parents — something very true.” I can’t help intercepting into the argument.
“Does that mean I slave for you?”
“You are not slaving for him,” my companion is animated, “when you play your role as a wife. It will not make you less a woman in fact on the contrary what you young girls don’t know is that it fulfils your womanhood in such a way that nothing else can ever fulfil including degrees and career. We are naturally wired to submit. I can also tell you that the fight to equality is a forlorn road to nowhere, you’d better argue for equity. I am telling you as a woman who has been married, brought forth life, encountered years of men and had not so perfect a husband.”
“I have gone to school and I am liberated. I know the value of my feminine self. It is about my happiness not the archaic loftiness of submissive wife. We are all equal and a woman is no lesser being.”
“Now my daughter you get it wrong. It is not a contest of oppressor versus oppressed. We are not equal. The man has his place and the woman has her place. If we were equal, then men would also be getting pregnant.”
I chuckle. I have a notion in such a contest I need to be wise. Listen more, speak less.
“And you, our mothers, are the women who have derailed the liberation of women. You entertained loafing self-ingratiating men in your lives. You gave way, looked the other way when they got kids from wild escapades. You became scapegoats for their deplorable follies. And you sat back doing nothing, waiting on the baby as they snored, warming their baths as they read newspapers, forgiving them for atrocities against the woman because you had said I do. You suffered. But we are not going to play that tune.”
“Your too much English is what is wrong with you people. I am a simple retired teacher. I was content from the beginning. You are overambitious. For you people, there is everything you want to become. For us it was simple. To bring up a family and be decently married. And frankly, our times were better because material peace can never equate to the peace of the soul. After all, for my sixty years I have chosen to see the good side of the men in my life. As I said there is no perfect man and of the most imperfect of men is your husband. I know also the sanctity of institutions like marriage has been ruined. There are many things going on right now. Just be wise my daughter.”
“It’s been a nice conversation. You are the age of my mother. So let me say nice journey mum.”
“I enjoyed it my daughter God bless you.”
“I also enjoyed the debate.”
“Koi, you hardly spoke much.”
“I chose to learn.”
I smile and incline my back on my seat in an arc that allows me to stretch my arms and yawn.
“So your name is Koi?”
“And you are?”
“You are Muslim.”
“I am human and feminist.”
“What’s with the puzzled face Koi the learner?”
“Just that I hardly meet people who are proud of their religious identity nowadays.”
“It’s the new world.”
“You said, a brave new world.”
“I am a proud Anglican Christian and a staunch follower of Jesus Christ.”
“Good for you. My mother is Catholic and my father is a Quaker. I got my name from my paternal grandmother who was a Quaker Muslim convert that got married to a Catholic.”
“Quite a history.”
“Everyone’s got a past.”
“So you have read the manifesto.”
“Yeah, we must all be feminists.”
“It’s all politics.”
“Have you read it?”
“I am comfortable in my old ways.”
“So how would you know it’s politics?”
“I see little substance and rationale in the whole idea.”
“Against the natural order.”
“Who defines the natural order? You see, feminism and feminists have been misconceived. You might have chosen to be subjective on this. Research.”
“You are firebrands and radicals of all the sought that demonize all of men. I see you as seekers of power, very dangerous if it ever shifts into your possession.”
“Next you will say I am extremist.”
We both chuckle.
“I bet we let it rest.”
“Sure. People tend to be on edge when it comes to politics, religion and ethnicity. It’s a good idea.”
She picks up her phone. I pick up mine.
I take her number and she picks mine. We are friends.
The bus puffs collecting speed in its wings of wind outside. Nairobi’s expansive night lights pour out a spectacular sight. Orion and the Southern cross remain unmoved. I feel anxiety climbing in my bloodstream. Here is the city, not far from my dreams. Here is the place I have centred in my life’s future. It is not going to be easy. You can only be a fool if you imagine it a smooth ride on the hot tarmac of job hunting. Stories abound of thousands of souls armed with papers — many better than mine, which I am yet to hold in my possession, I carry with me only transcripts, stories abound of these souls’ dejected lives. I have heard of many tired of the humiliation jumping in front of Cement loaded trucks on Mombasa Road, to end the misery. Others have been said to resort to other crimes like digging underground holes to rob banks as the more resilient have jumped into online writing — forming writing cartels that help students in far-flung overseas universities to write academic papers. They are perpetrators of academic fraud. But I can’t blame them, it is unequivocally a better resolution than hurling your miserable soul before a speeding truck.
There before my eyes is Nairobi. Fast approaching. For young men my kind I have few good stories to tell. Could I be committing a grave mistake? I will find out. I am the kind who feels it in the flesh, who falls to rise, who takes the untaken road.
It is approaching five in the morning. Most travellers are either sleeping, stirring on their seats or punching on their phone screens. For an aged woman, my companion has hardly dozed. I find this queer. She is leaning her head on the glass window. I pick up my phone and do a text. “Hey bro… we are in Westlands at ABC place…almost.”
Nairobi has changed, there are lots of construction work going on — roads being expanded, new sky-scrapers with designs like that of the London bullet building and new housing projects in the outskirts. Constructions of roads started whose end we do not know but they keep drivers diverting many times from the main Waiyaki-Way highway. There are even whispers of a Nairobi eye in existence not forgetting three D movie theatres have arrived in this magnificent metropolis. I have been reading that there is a resurgence of the middle class. The drivers of the new surge in construction. There is a renaissance. These concrete jungle is going to balloon. A certain patriotic pride fills my heart. I am part of this great resurgence, whatever happens to me. We are the lions of this jungle. I will not fail.
Before our bus makes its final sway on a roundabout to our destination we are stopped by police in reflector jackets. The interior lights flick on. The driver gets out, has a chat with the cops and returns smiling.
He salutes the cops and we are on our way. I could be wrong but he didn’t get out for anything and we haven’t been let to proceed for anything, but as I said I could be wrong. There has been talk that things are changing in the traffic police department with the incumbent Chief of police working well with the Cabinet Secretary. It is just good to mind your own business. I should not mind. I have arrived and that is all that matters.
We get to the bus station at the old Railways Terminus. It is one of the rare July days — clear skies and lukewarm.
“Koi help me get my bags.”
My companion is alert. The bus has farted its last, the passengers who were asleep stir up, the man who wanted to catch a plane is already dragging a suitcase out. I wonder what plane he wants to catch at this hour. I help my companion with her bags. Samira is a tidy traveller, she has a rucksack and a handbag on her way out. Soon we are all on our way out. My sling bag is tight in my clutch as I step out. This is Nairobi. There are vagrants and malcontents roaming especially in crowded places like this. The place is cluttered with noise, travellers, loafers and buses. It is not my first time to be here but every time I return it looks different. This time there are puddles of dirty stagnant water and there is a new cafe called Morgan’s Tree. I bid farewell to my companion and walk to Morgan’s Tree. I want an early hot coffee and samosa or sausage as I wait for the sky to lighten. Beyond Morgan’s Tree matatus are honking blaring tearing noise into my comfort accompanied by shouting touts haggling for customers. This city never sleeps.
I place my order. There is no samosa so I settle for a French toast, sausage and white coffee. I want it strong. I am beginning to relax my nerves. My order arrives and I settle down to calmly dig into my breakfast. I have travelled a long way, all the way from the far-flung border between Kenya and Uganda in western Kenya. All the way from Busia town. I have made a journey to start a life. Good breakfast is not a bad metaphor in any case.
First published by Kalahari Review