Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Cornell Ngare
I’ve never really gotten the logic, but it seems to work perfectly for everybody else. Apparently, it is more expensive to travel to Kerugoya from Nairobi using the Kukena Sacco 14-seater matatus than it is to travel with the 2NK Sacco matatus. Yet most passengers prefer using the more expensive service. No, the Kukena matatus are not newer, and the drivers are not better than those of 2NK. If anything, the 2NK service is more professional and reliable. The booking offices for the two matatu services are less than a hundred meters from each other, both in Nairobi and in the Kerugoya. So, I really don’t see why people would opt for Kukena over 2NK.
But in the few times I have made the trip from Nairobi to Kerugoya, I’ve preferred, like everyone else, to use the more expensive Kukena service. The only reason I chose them over the 2NK matatus happens to be the only reason other people prefer the service – they take a shorter time to fill up, and nobody wants to spend an hour sitting in a stationary matatu. Something tells me that perhaps they used to be cheaper awhile back and after they gained popularity, they subtly raised the fare and kept them up. But the people were already hooked, and old habits die hard. At least that sounded like a plausible expanation, until this particular day.
The matatu was full and ready to go. The driver collected the bus fare from the passengers and handed everyone their balances and receipts. As we sped up Kirinyaga road, towards the Globe Cinema roundabout, the driver made a sudden exit into the Shell fuel station. I wondered why these long distance matatu drivers never bother to fuel before picking up passengers. My thoughts were interrupted when the driver switched off the engine and stepped out of the matatu. Yes, this was actually strange. Matatu drivers seldom switch off the engine at gas stations. He proceeded to open one of the passenger windows and shoved his hand inside. There was a 1000 Kenyan Shilling note dangling between his index finger and his thumb.
“I want the person who gave me this note to take it back immediately.”
Blank stares suddenly masked the passengers’ faces. I slowly closed the book that I had started reading, making sure to bookmark the page with a finger.
“I want the person who gave me this fake note to take it back,” he clarified.
More blank, but now faintly curious, stares.
After about a minute of silence, the driver closed the window, paid the pump attendant and got back into his seat. He then drove back to the bus station. He went and parked the matatu right next to the spot where we had boarded it. Then he switched off the engine, stepped out and poked his head through the passenger window.
“I want the person who gave me this fake money to take it back or else we are not going to leave this place.”
By now, low murmurs buzzed among the passengers. Some remarked at the futility of the driver’s efforts, “Even if one of us was the culprit, does he think that the person will give himself up just like that?” One passenger quipped.
“I bet the guilty person doesn’t even know he is the one. Maybe he is also a victim of the same con,” another one added.
The guy next to me started to get agitated. He was growing impatient, “Hey, give me back my money and let me go as you settle this. I am running late.”
Suddenly, we had a suspect. Then I recalled the guy handing over a 500 shilling note when we were paying his fare. I remembered because his note was part of my change for the 1000 note I had given the driver. He wasn’t the one. But I could be.
Luckily, the driver had a good memory. He recalled all the passengers who had handed him a 1000 Shilling note. There were five of us. But his memory wasn’t good enough to match each note with its original recipient. Every one of the five suspects claimed allegiance to one of the four remaining genuine notes.
It was hard to tell who was telling the truth. Except for one old gentleman who, surprisingly, had just withdrawn money from the ATM before he boarded the matatu and he had arranged the notes sequentially by the serial number! He showed the driver the bunch in his wallet and sure enough, the driver had the next note in the series, and it wasn’t the fake one.
After about 15 minutes of haggling and deliberating at the stage, the other passengers were growing impatient and agitated. The driver eventually gave up and got into the matatu. He made sure that we all understood that God was going to give him back the money he lost.
Soon, we left the city and we were speeding down the Thika Super Highway. Conversations among the passengers slowly drifted from the short episode and eventually died out. I cracked open my book and continued reading this book that I just never seemed to be getting around to finishing, Remembering Christmas, by Dan Walsh. It’s a great story, about a man called Rick Denton whose comfortable life gets interrupted by a tragedy in his family…
When I looked up again, we were no longer on the highway. The driver had suddenly decided to take the exit to Githurai and we were now speeding up the side road. This was not part of our usual route. When we reached Githurai market, we stopped and the driver got out of the vehicle. He walked around the matatu and approached one of the vendors selling some match boxes, cigarettes and sweets. He had the 1000 Shilling note in his hand. I knew exactly what he was about to do.
As he walked back from the vendor, he stopped briefly behind the matatu, out of my line of sight. I assumed he was checking his phone or something had drawn his interest. Then he came back into the matatu and drove back into the highway. The passengers had already started murmuring again.
“I guess he decided to let someone else take the fall,” the woman sitting in front of me said.
“Yeah, all people are just the same,” I made my contribution, “We are all just as ready to pass on the victim card.”
We drove without any incidences for about 50 kilometers. Then the driver made another stop, this time on the side of the road and turned in his seat to address the passengers.
In his hands, he had a stack of matchboxes. I assumed this is what he had bought from the vendor. He began distributing the boxes among the passengers that had given him a 1000 Shilling note. I reluctantly received mine and quickly put it in my front shirt pocket. But something that he said made me curious about the content of that matchbox.
“If you’re the one who gave me the fake note, be sure that your money will burn the same way you have burned mine.”
I removed the box from my pocket, pushed open the container and glanced inside the match holder. Sure enough, tiny charred pieces of the 1000 shilling note were neatly scattered over the matchsticks.
One of the women who had also given out a 1000 Shilling note gasped in shock as she peeked into hers. She seemed traumatized.
I closed mine and continued reading my book. In the story, Rick Denton had just discovered a life altering secret about the homeless guy that he had hated so much and for so long. I silently wondered if I had just bumped into the secret to Kukena matatus’ irrational business success.
Remembering Christmas by Dan Walsh
Set in the early 80s, the story starts off as a drag. I almost gave up reading it when I got into the fifth chapter and there still seemed to be no direction to the story. Okay, no need to be discouraged yet, each chapter is about 2 to 3 pages long and the whole book has 51 chapters. Rick Denton is a man that lives life on his own terms, with a prestigious job in Georgia and living in the condo of his dreams. That’s why the last place he would ever dream of finding himself is working at an old Christian bookshop in Florida owned by a step dad that he’s never gotten around to loving.
While working at the bookshop, he grows fond of the young assistant, Andrea, who is a single mother and works two jobs to make ends meet. He knows that such a nice girl would never give him a chance. She knows that such a high living man would never want to be tied down to a country girl like her. Though Rick hates every waking day that he has to go work at the Book Nook bookshop, he also looks forward to each day. It’s a bitter-sweet feeling. He hates the bookshop because it’s run down and barely makes any profits. But he loves it because he gets to see Andrea. He also hates the bookshop for another reason, JD. JD is a homeless man who has an imaginary friend.
It seems Rick’s step father had grown very fond of JD. He would always give him a warm cup of coffee and a muffin every morning.
But Rick hates everything and everyone his stepfather loves, except his mother. So, he does whatever he can to discourage JD from visiting the bookshop for his daily treat of free coffee and a muffin. He even suspects JD when the bookstore is robbed. However, his attitude and life is about to change when a great revelation turns his whole world and worldview upside down. JD, the homeless man, holds a secret that Rick Denton can’t handle – a secret that is going to break him and leave him a completely different man. As I flipped the pivotal page and, together with Rick, discovered what this secret was, I felt my life also changing alongside Rick’s.
© Cornell Ngare 2013
This is Cornell Ngare’s story of life and reading. What is yours? Comment about what living and reading has meant to you in the past three months.
This is Cornell Nga