Dusk is falling over the city like a blanket. I don’t know what time it is. I don’t have a watch but I can always rely on the city clock, if it is working. But on this particular evening, the city clock’s face is dressed in campaign posters. A large grinning face stares at me from the clock’s post. Behind it, the clock is fast asleep, its arms taking a break.
I reach down into my underwear’s pocket and take out my old Alcatel mobile phone. It is a quarter past seven. Gosh! I’m going to miss my favourite soap opera on TV tonight. I have to rush and get a matatu quick.
At the matatu stage there is only one of them. People are fighting to get in and head home. The matatu tout takes advantage of this and hikes the fare.
“Eastleigh fifty! Fifty Eastleigh!” shouts the young man. “Kama hautaki enda mguu!” he adds arrogantly.
I weigh my options between trekking to Eastleigh and parting with my fifty shillings for a distance where normally I would be charged twenty shillings. It is late, dangerous, and above all, by the time I get home, my favourite soap opera will be over. I wouldn’t know whether Alejandro decided to confess his undying love to Maria or whether Camilla came in and spoilt the magic moment when they were just about to kiss.
Clutching my handbag close to my chest, I push and shove near the door but the men are too strong. I give up and decide to wait for the next matatu. But just then, the Machine, sitting at the driver’s cabin, beckons to me. “Psst! Psst! Mrembo, come ukae hapa.”
My luck. I will seat comfortably next to the driver where I won’t have to endure the congestion in the passengers’ side of the matatu. The Machine opens the door and steps out. He does not wait for me to get in. Instead, he lifts me up swiftly and before I can say ‘No,’ I am seated next to the driver and the Machine is lifting another pretty girl to sit next to me. He then jumps in.
A signal from the tout and we are on our way out of the city. The Machine turns up the volume and I can feel the music vibrating in my ribs. The girl next to me reaches for her lipstick from her bag. She tries to apply it but she misses her lips and ends up smearing her nose with red lipstick as the driver swerves to avoid an oncoming boda boda.
We are then temporarily held in a traffic jam. The tout jumps out of the matatu and tries to create a space big enough for the matatu on the pedestrians’ pavement. He joins other matatu touts who are busy harassing a young woman driver stuck to her Vitz steering wheel. “Madam, Kama hujui kuendesha gari tutakuonyesha,” they shout. The young woman is too scared to drive away. The touts join hands and pushing her small car of the way, into the other lane.
We continue on our journey and now we are at an intersection. The driver stops suddenly in the middle of the road and the tout jumps out, runs ahead and spies the traffic on both sides. He then indicates to the driver to follow Kirinyaga Road. We swerve to the left, over the pavement and into the wrong side of the road.
A handcart pusher crosses the road, completely ignoring the speeding matatu on the wrong side of the road. In his handcart he pulls a bag of potatoes, a plastic paper bag that seems to be stuffed with clothes, and a baby. The goods’ owner runs behind, trying to catch up with the handcart puller. She too does not seem too concerned with the oncoming matatu. Her goods are more precious and you cannot let these handcart pushers out of your eye for even one moment. Our driver suddenly brakes and we are thrown forward. As the handcart pusher and the woman passes, a young couple takes advantage of the opportunity and cross the road, holding onto each other tightly. Our driver and his companion’s eyes follow the couple but I guess they are just focused on the girl.
Then we are on the move again but before I can regain my composure, the matatu stops again as suddenly. The tout is out and calling in more passengers into the already full matatu. From the rearview mirror, I can see him helping only the women into the matatu, by gently holding onto their waits and hips.
The tout then comes to the window and shouts to the Machine to increase the volume of the music. His laughter is swallowed by the noise and he ends up looking like an actor miming out a scene in a play.
The matatu is on the move again but the conductor is left behind. I then see him run and jump to grab the iron pole by the door. He then swings his body into the already full matatu and he is hidden from my view in the rear view window.
I am still thinking about his dangerous game when suddenly there is a scratch on my shoulder. I turn back sharply and a big, hairy and muscular hand is outstretched. The girl beside me tries to hand over her fare but the Machine restrains her hand. “Leo usilipe. I’ll pay for you,” he says. The girl throws a side glance at him and giggles. She pushes her money back into her bag.
Slowly, I remove my money from the bag, hoping the Machine will say the same thing to me before the outstretched hand grabs it. Who wouldn’t want a free ride anyway? But the Machine is not even looking at me. He has started a conversation with the girl. They are talking about something to do with the high cost of rent nowadays, especially for people who live alone.
I slowly watch as my five hundred shillings note disappears behind me. A huge television screen has been used effectively to block the driver’s cabin from view of the rest of the passengers in the matatu. For the same reason, I don’t see the conductor except for his huge hand.
“Karao! Karao!” the shout comes from the Machine and the tout at the same time.
“I have already seen his blue cap but I’m not going to let him arrest me,” the driver answers calmly.
“Pita na yeye!” the Machine shouts to the driver as the police officer moves to the middle of the road, his baton raised high to indicate to the driver to pull over by the road side.
But our driver does not stop nor slow down. Taking the advice of the Machine, he steps harder on the gas and we are flying towards the lone policeman standing in the middle of the road. When the blue uniformed officer realizes the danger he is in, he jumps to the pavement, cursing the driver and the matatu. In anger, frustration and shame, he throws his baton at the matatu and I watch in horror as the rear view window is smashed.
“Kumamake!” the driver curses adding, “Who does that stupid policeman think he is?”
“He is just a junior officer! Doesn’t he know the owner of this matatu is a senior police officer?” the Machine offers an answer.
“Huyo karoa anacheza na job yake sana,” it is the girl beside me. I also agree with her, though I don’t voice my comments. That young policeman must be very naïve to think he could arrest his senior’s driver and take his matatu in.
We are now getting into the residential areas and the passengers start alighting one by one. The Machine temporarily forgets the girl beside me whom he was chatting up and concentrates on his work. For each passenger that drops off from the matatu, his machine clicks once. But not for every passenger though. One young man drops off as the matatu slows down at a bump on the road. He does it in a style where he puts his left foot on the ground first and lifting his left hand above his head, drops off without waiting for the matatu to stop. Then the conductor shouts, “Sare!” He is the only one, beside the girl, who gets a free ride.
We are almost home now. But just before we get to when I usually alight, the driver makes a u-turn and stops.
“Mwisho!” he says looking further ahead.
“But you have not reached the end of the route. How am I going to get home in the darkness?” I ask.
Before I can get an answer, the Machine is out, and the girl too. The few passengers left in the matatu are also alighting. No use arguing with these matatu people. We have to walk the few remaining blocks home.
I get off from the matatu and hurry to keep up with the other passengers. It is always safer to walk in a group especially at such a time. Then the matatu rushes off to town for the next group eager to go home.
It is only when the matatu disappears behind the corner that I remember I did not get back my change from the conductor. And by the time I get home, my favourite soap opera will be over.
©Doseline Kiguru 2011
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