We had been booked in Lamu for the entire Christmas period, after which we would be flown back to Nairobi. But what the Kwani? guys forgot was that they were dealing with a Luhyia man, who gets an irrepressible urge to travel back to his tribal land to be with his people at Christmas time, to eat ugali and chicken cooked in a pot the traditional way, and thereafter pay a visit to the drinking dens in Shichiko village in Eregi to catch up with his kinsmen over a pot of traditional busaa beer after a year of being away in what my people call iruguru (literally, abroad). Without this, a Luhyia man’s Christmas is not complete. It is this primeval urge that suddenly took over me as I slept off the mnazi we had drunk in the village on the evening of Christmas eve.
Somewhere in the middle of the night I snapped awake and realized that the following morning was going to be Christmas Day, and that I was in Lamu, 480 miles away from my home and family pretending that everything was normal? No way was I going to spend Christmas with these guys, I decided. Besides, I was not going to get on that Fly540 plane they had booked me on. You hardly see anything when you are air-borne, anyway. The furthest I had come before when I was still living in Mombasa was Kilifi. I wanted to see the country beyond Kilifi. That is the only way I could claim I had been to Lamu.
I knew Binya would be mad when he discovered I had deserted ship the next morning. I had heard that Kwani? had planned for us to go on an excursion to a nearby marine park and later wind off the day with a candle-lit dinner on a floating dhow as we watched a belly-dance performance – the stuff that excites tourists. Well, they could always get someone else to take my slot; I was certain there were countless Nairobians down at the coast for the holidays at that time who would snap it up. Pole, Binya, but my ancestral village was calling, even if I didn’t have any booked tickets with me and had no idea how the bus schedules operated on the Lamu-Mombasa route. I told myself that I would let the road dictate where it would take me; so long as I got to Mombasa.
I was up at dawn the following morning. I dressed up and slipped out of there without even bidding Billy Kahora in the next room bye. I knew that the locals traveled by dhow to the landing site on the mainland, from whence I would get a bus bound for Mombasa. The winding narrow streets were still deserted, but there was activity at the seafront. I asked a boy in the street and he confirmed that the dhow would take me to Mokowe jetty on the mainland, from where I would see the Mombasa buses waiting for fares – you can trust Lamu residents to direct you if you are lost, unlike the cons that abound on Nairobi’s streets. I gave the boy 20 bob and squeezed onboard the leaning old dhow, which was packed full of travelers, luggage and even trussed-up goats and chickens, with some guys clinging onto the wooden roof.
I held my breath as the old Yamaha outboard motor chugged us out and across the short crossing, my stomach heaving every time the vessel listed. You see it was so packed you could stretch out your hand and dip in the emerald sea. I knew the ocean was quite deep at the crossing and infested with sharks, and I dreaded if the old outboard should suddenly conk out mid-channel. You see, I don’t know how to swim, and I couldn’t see any life-jackets anywhere on the dilapidated vessel.
We made it to Mokowe in one piece, and as the boy said, there were a number of Mombasa-bound buses idling at the landing, waiting to fill up. They were mostly old coaches that had been retired from other long-distance routes by the operators and brought here to wind up their productive life, and which had Arabic names that all went Al-something, accompanied by a ‘Yarabi Salama’ or ‘Mash-Allah’ legend. The bus filled up and as it roared up the road I turned around and kissed Lamu’s golden stretch of palm-lined beach goodbye.
We traveled through flat, mostly unremarkable country, with tiny makuti-thatched villages occasionally popping up in the palm and mango trees speeding by outside. The drama started somewhere around Witu, where we stopped to eat juicy sweet bananas sold on teo trays by the village women as we took in more standing passengers. The seated passengers, who were impatient to get home for Christmas, protested, but the crew told them they were free to terminate their journey and wait for another bus. It had grown sweltering hot in the close-packed bus as the sun rose higher in the sky and I was dripping with sweat even this early, my shirt clinging to my moist back.
I looked up and a bundle was leaning into my face, the owner clinging onto the handrail as the bus plunged and swayed in and out of potholes as it laboured on up the road. It was a local MijiKenda woman returning to her village for Christmas, and the bundle that was leaning into my face was her baby, wrapped up in a faded lesso bundle and secured onto her wiry frame, and who was suckling onto a dark breast protruding out of its mother’s unbuttoned bodice. You can fault us Luhyia men for a number of things, including our accent and rustic manners that refuse to urbanize, but one thing you can never take away from us is our chivalry. It is a part of our culture. There was no way I was going to sit there comfortably as that baby swung in its tight lesso pouch over my face.
I gave up my seat and the woman slumped in it with a grateful smile, swinging the kid round into her lap. I noted that her feet were in worn bathroom slippers, and covered in dust. She had probably trekked a long distance through the bush to get to the bus stop. And as I clung onto the handrail my only worry was that my laptop, which was in my bag stashed under the seat, would be crushed amidst all that luggage and feet.
We got to Mombasa without incident and I let myself out at Mwembe Tayari, and after ascertaining that my laptop was still intact, I went off to buy an evening ticket at the nearby Coast Bus office. I was now in familiar territory, and luxuriated in slipping into that coastal Swahili from my stay there earlier before I moved to Nairobi.
The traffic was coming in the opposite direction, meaning me and a handful of other passengers would have the night bus all to ourselves since no one was traveling to Nairobi. With some hours to kill and with the ticket safely in my pocket, I went off to find those loud-mouthed Nairobians I would be traveling with at a pub I knew they would be at on the city’s main avenue near the elephant tusks monument. And you could hear them from a mile away on the open first floor verandah bar. It is with this drunk lot that we would now and then force the Coast Bus nightdriver to stop to let us have a leak, reminding him that there was nowhere he was hurrying to since everyone was celebrating Christmas.
I may not have made it for Christmas, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least I would be in Western for Boxing Day, even if it meant traveling in the back of a newspaper van from Nairobi onwards.
For a fuller experience of Gazemba’s Literary Escapades, we recommend you also read last week’s instalment in case you missed it: Leaving Binyavanga to Go Eat Fried Shrimp in Lamu – Debunk Media