I have never been claustrophobic. But in the swell of humans and their earthly chattels on this morning bus, I felt anxiety rise inside my chest. Then I remembered. I was going home.
For buses, as with pubs and shoes, you will know how your journey will be the second you board. On this particular one, the picture wasn’t promising. Clogged aisles. Loud neighbours. Kuber–chewing driver. Broken sockets. I, however, didn’t care for much. Amid the madness, a reclining seat was all I desired. I needed to sleep. Home was calling.
On the first seat by the window was an old man dressed in a red fleece hoodie. The ebb of time was chiselling away at his creased face at its leisure, the long chapters of his life written in each wrinkle on his face. The pages that I couldn’t see were those on how much he desired to recount each memory, each wish, each regret. I noticed him because he was staring. Out of guilt, duty or both, I said ‘Jambo’ and without waiting for a response, wriggled my way to seat 33 which was reserved for me.
After a seemingly endless effort, hopping over piles of luggage lumped in the aisle and brushing shoulders with well-fed passengers, I finally reached my seat, only to find a passenger in it. She was clad in a green veil embroidered with a white cross that matched her headscarf. Though her eyes were wide open, she was chanting what clearly was a prayer. A teenage boy with earbuds plugged in and a phone in his palm sat next to her.
I gave her a few minutes, hoping she would notice me after her prayers. Nothing. So I waved my ticket in her face to show her that she had taken my seat. Nothing. I waited a little longer before softly tapping her and asking that she vacate my seat. She gave me a piercing look, before resuming her prayers, this time, chanting even more loudly. Bewildered, I leaned into the back of the seat, hefting my heavy backpack on my shoulder as I planned my next move.
The rest of the passengers minded their business, pulling bags from the top carrier rack and back. The driver was fumbling with the stereo, first with the volume button, turning it up and down till he was convinced the sound was ‘appropriate’. Then he scanned through the onboard music collection, trying to find his favourite. He settled on Franco and TPOK Jazz’s 1988-89 album. Like many Rhumba fans, I only know the tune and a smattering of the lyrics. Then, the engine sputtered into life, and with it, the urgency to seek the conductor’s intervention on my seat situation. I struggled to contain my anger as I made my way down the aisle up to where the conductor was. I felt everyone on the bus staring at me. I ignored them.
“Mama kiti chako kiko kule nyuma, tafadhali mpishe huyu dada aketi,” the conductor shouted as he made his way towards the praying woman. Was the ‘tafadhali’ necessary? Words coated with the coastal accent always lose their intended authority, I imagined. Or was it just me who saw it that way?
“Mamaa, nazungumza na wewe,” the conductor said, leaning closer to her face. Nothing. ‘Naongea’ would have had a better effect than ‘nazungumza’. And why did he stretch the word ‘mama’?
Well, ‘mamaa’ continued chanting hysterically, drowning any further threats from the conductor. Spectating passengers were fed to a religious circus; a round of unchoreographed raucous laughter and spontaneous animation. I couldn’t help joining in.
Soon, everyone aired their opinions. My benefactors urged the woman to give up my seat. Middle-grounders whispered that I take hers. Impatient ones blurted that I take the dreaded back seat instead. The back seat was a no for me, obviously. I had a tendency to get sick on long journeys. To settle the matter, the conductor offered me his seat at the front and opted to travel in the driver’s cabin, clicking and cursing, with a tinge of a coastal accent.
The absurdity, or not, was that the chanting woman’s performance set the stage for steamy conversation and laughter, all of which rose above Franco’s Sadou. Others had drifted into thoughts that would erase themselves on arrival to their destinations. And so it goes on that way. All of us are together, yet separate. Awake or far yonder in slumberland, like Mzee next to me. Feeling all the same turns and bumps. I was here, I was there.
The tires made a monotonous hissing lullaby over the rain-washed highway that sent most passengers to sleep as we approached Naivasha. Silence was now king, allowing only for whispers from a few awake passengers competing with the sacred Le TPOK Jazz.
I switched my attention to the verdant Delamere farms sweeping past. Lofty trees replaced the skyscrapers, their shades of green and acacia yellow a pleasant reprieve to tired city eyes. I could watch them for a while, let this moment of bliss extend as much as the sun lit up the horizon. But this bus wasn’t my mother’s, and the journey was hardly half done!
I turned to look at my neighbour. He was clenching a red shopping bag in his lap. Cupcakes and a sachet of milk peeped from within. He must have done very little in his life to deserve that sound sleep, I thought. By then the sun had risen, its rays igniting the hues of each tree and home. But a chill wafted in through the open window. As I stretched my arm to shut the window, Mzee woke up and restrained me. Still drunk and sleepy, he asked if I needed help. I nodded. He obliged, closing the window.
“ She is just like my wife,” Mzee said.
“I heard the praying woman at the back. She is just like my wife. Only difference is that Emily does not pray. Good Lord! I am going back to her! Going home makes everything worse!”
Unknown to me, this would be the epitaph of my odyssey to Busia, told in phases, peppered with faith and marital intrigues.
“My wife is good at many things, but perfect at noise-making and drinking. Before I left for Nairobi three days ago, she was drinking what I assumed was water from an agwata gourd. Though her speech was incoherent, I thought she was simply protesting my decision to travel alone. I asked her if her ex-husband took her with him everywhere he traveled to. Soon after, warm Chang’aa from the agwata wafted across the enclosed space, blinding me. I had no choice but to join in.”
As I would quickly learn, Mzee has a habit of starting his stories from the middle, without giving context. He would make a statement you couldn’t comprehend, his tongue exploring his toothless gums, waiting for your prompt. It was only for effect. He would still proceed with the tale, regardless whether you badged in or not. It took me a while to figure that out.
“Unless you are asking for a change of heart,” he said.
“Prayers can only reach the mountains if the heart is pure unless the prayer is asking for a change of the heart. Western missionaries should have left us to our cults that were revered and held together our moral fabric,” Mzee narrated.
“I dropped out of class four because I disagreed with white weddings. I told a teacher that at my wedding, we would cut and eat brown ugali with smoked fish and drink Chang’aa or Papaya wine unless the grapes or wheat are planted in Kenya. I knew I had dug my grave. However, I buried myself in the grave when I swore to be polygamous.”.
Mzee said he later joined another school where he cleared his primary level. Soon after, he moved to Nairobi and got employed at the Kenya Commercial Bank printing room in 1964, earning Ksh 846. That same year, he married the woman who ‘bewitched him with her smile’ and together, they had four children.
“I paid all the bills,” he said.
“What bills?” I asked.
“I lived peacefully with my late wife, a clerk in a government office because I paid all the bills. I never once questioned how she spent her salary. I would have shared this wisdom with my two sons had they not decided to leave this earth too soon,” he told me.
I swam deep into the conversation, nodding loudly, probing and cheering him on. If you have an orator at your disposal, maximize, because they won’t stop and you can’t get tired. Dozing off is a cardinal sin, no one prepared me for this.
“Of course, she died. More than 10 years ago. Nature will never let you enjoy fine things in life, not for long. Nature can’t stop me though, and so I picked Emily, another fine thing save for…” Mzee giggled the rest of the sentence. He had the same giggle, the same fidgeting of fingers every time he spoke about Emily.
Though he loved fine things, Mzee remarried many years later, after retiring and moving back to his home in Malanga, Gem sub-county in Siaya. Many years because he could not remember the year.
He also habitually tilted his head and squinted, his hoarse voice demanding attention as a word left his mouth. He was speaking about his heyday clubbing on Kirinyaga Road and making women happy, an art he said young men suck at. He went on and on, but not once did his eyes meet mine. I do not know for how long I had slept when a violent tap on my shoulders plucked me forcefully out of slumber.
“Wake up! You will sleep when you die,” Mzee said, inconsiderately. He continued talking, but I wasn’t listening, a blend of confusion, anger and protest written all over my face.
Nakuru. The bus was getting off the highway for a brief layover at a restaurant. Hawkers flooded, selling everything. Sodas and biscuits. Maasai medicinal herbs and shukas. Jewellery and brooms. And anything in between. Loud music was blaring from hoisted speakers in a nearby church crusade. This town never sleeps. I see Busia when I look at her. What my town can be. If Busia emulated her, maybe the bus park will get rehabilitated, the roads expanded and the trailers that jam the roads given a lane. Maybe the government buildings that have tanned after years of sunburn will get a new coat of paint. It feels like a different country altogether but residents continue to anchor their hope on devolution for a change. I admired it from my window. Every other minute, a pang of hunger knocked but my brain quickly reminded her of the consequence.
I was still groggy from the interrupted sleep when the driver turned the bus engine on. The bus was full but Mzee was missing. I peered through the window in panic, no sign. My heartbeat lost its rhythm like it does when, after walking past Nyamakima, you touch your pockets and find your phone missing.
“Wait!” I shouted as I sprung off my chair and rushed to inform the driver that someone was missing. Just as I reached the driver’s cabin, I heard a familiar voice.
“Where is she? That small girl…ooh, there she is,” Mzee said on seeing me.
I don’t know why I felt my muscles loosen as I sank into my seat. Mzee handed me one of the two packages with an aluminium foil wrap and proceeded to peel his.
“It is supposed to be a hot dog, but it is neither hot nor is it a dog. However, it is laced with a slow killing poison, as a lesson to those who let young girls travel alone,” he quipped.
I don’t find it funny and I show it. Taking notice, Mzee took a dig at his hot dog. He then grabbed mine and bit off a considerable chunk. He then shoved both towards me and asked me to pick.
“I am 76 and approaching my grave, be wise in your choice,” he mumbled through the mountain in his mouth. He ate them both in silence, for about three minutes, the longest Mzee has been quiet. After a few bites, he was done and ready to chatter.
“30,000 shillings,” he said.
Though I was curious about what was 30K – was it the hotdog or another story – I remained silent, hoping that it works the same way as an off button. Nothing.
“Mzee is supposed to survive on a Ksh 30,000 monthly pension. The government wants Mzee dead, but Mzee has two surviving daughters living in Europe who supplement his income,” he spoke about himself in the third person.
Mzee went on about the high land rates he has to pay the Nairobi County government for a three-bedroom house he owns in Jericho estate. The reason he had travelled to Nairobi was to change bank details where the rent is deposited.
He spoke about his life hunting for rabbits, antelopes and dik-diks. About trekking long distances to pass information and the elaborate ceremonies for nearly every cultural event. About how technology was changing people’s lives but killing humanity by making things too easy. I listened. All my childhood, I listened to my grandfather’s detailed stories about hunting that always ended in a word match between him and my grandmother. His stories ended up in triumph, and grandma dismissing him. Like Mzee, he too hailed from Gem. I was damn tired of those stories. I craved silence and wondered if there was a polite way of getting Mzee to stop.
Seeing as I wanted to bathe my eyes in nature, I slowly turned my head giving the leathery Theaceae trees an audience. If countryside towns were christened after queens for their beauty, Kericho would be Cleopatra. They had serrated leaves stretched in every direction glistening under the warm sunlight. Here in the lush green of the tea plantation, was the trademark of the County and everything around it sought to complement it. The road, a smooth black river, hugged the land to infinity, and the tar-black sky raced against our bus. I let my eyes run over the wonder as the wheels slid round and round, effortlessly along.
Then, I heard a tapping on the window, a splatter, and a brew of a familiar tantalising smell lingered lightly in the air. As a child, this smell often tempted me to get a taste of the soil yet many years later I still fight this urge. I called it the smell of rain. Soon, it became a pitter-patter, massaging my soul to repose from the sound of each water-car connection. My mind was pulled from its thoughts and atmospheric observations by Mzee’s rant about colonial white men who grabbed farms without paying.
“They never paid for them,” he said, then started biting his lips.
“Who never paid for what?” I asked.
“The Mzungu. They came, they saw, they loved and they conquered. All of it without giving a penny to the local owners,” he said, referring to the colonisers.
“One time, my sister-in-law came home seeking herbs to help wounds dry up quickly and to manage pain. She said my brother’s buttocks were on fire,” he recounted. “We all assumed that it was a fire accident and my mother gave her herbs for that. When we met later, my brother explained to me how a thin Mzungu reigned on her bare buttocks with 12 strokes of nyaunyo before other workers, for showing up to work late.”
Mzee attempted to compete with the noises from the outpour, his loud voice almost roaring. But when it got louder, he threw in the towel to my silent delight. Faya Tess’s shrill voice from the radio remixing Tabu Ley Rochereus’s Mokolo na Kokufa song was also swallowed by the now heavy downpour.
An hour later, we were in Kisumu. I went to high school here, but I barely recognise the city anymore. Old buildings and roads have been rehabilitated and plants garnish the streets. The footpaths that were taken over by traders at Oile Market opposite the Kisumu Municipal Market had been reclaimed and the town was visibly clean. We had a brief layover. Mzee opened his eyes and surveyed his surroundings quickly before closing them again. Thank God.
Chaos welcomed us to Luanda. Simsim (sesame seeds) hawkers, bodaboda riders, and matatus all scrambled for the highway. Matatus stopped to drop passengers anywhere while rowdy conductors competing for passengers dragged potential customers in all directions. But the scene is only complete with a madman. And there was one, passing right outside the window. Threadbare, tatty clothes and their musty odour. Bare feet and dusty arms wrapped with plastic bags. A Kenyan publisher revealed that those men are bhang peddlers disguised as madmen.
As we exited Luanda, beautiful trees parading both sides of the road for about a kilometer reminded Mzee of a story he had been burning to share. A final story, and the only one he started from the beginning.
In the 1930s, he recalled, a no-nonsense Chief Odera Akang’o of Gem ordered that Eucalyptus and Markhamia trees be planted along the paths to provide shelter for pedestrians. It was, however, during the realignment of roads for tarmacking that many of the trees were uprooted.
“Luanda (Luo word for a rock) gets its name from the many rocks in the area,” he said, pointing at the rocks painted with political messages.
“If these stones had a mouth, they would not let anyone paint their dirty names and fake promises on them. Politicians are only making the state of this town worse. I pray that the rains wash down those names soon,” he muttered angrily before going quiet.
The murky waters of River Yala swerved gently through green thickets, whistling in the wind on both sides of the 219 kilometres river, so beautiful. As it flows through forests, the River Yala leaves behind a tranquil yet eerie feeling, a sense of mystery because we know what lies beneath the ripples. The discovery of more than 30 bodies in this river early last year erased the sweet childhood memories of swimming in it whenever I visited my grandmother. I used to tread these waters until this discovery lest I get out with a human limb.
A few kilometres away at Malanga, the bus stopped for Mzee to alight. Standing at the door, Mzee pointed at a light coming from a building across the street.
“Should you ever find yourself in this town, walk to that shop and ask for the home of Mzee Sospeter,” he shouted, tickling the bus. The conductor laughed the loudest.
“Also, buy a car. I don’t like tired-looking visitors covered with red dust after sitting on the Apiko (motorcycle),” he shouted, to more laughter.
Silently, he started his way out but immediately his foot touched the ground, he turned around and walked two steps back up and in a shockingly new-generation way, asked the driver to wait.
“Hold up driver!” he told the driver then turned to me.
“The number I gave you is mine but my wife has the phone. She insists on keeping it though she does not know how to use it. Call anytime, but at your own risk,” he told me, his frail hand clutching tightly onto the rail.
The laughter on the bus could burst one’s eardrums. Amidst the laughter, people made hilarious comments.
“Just take her home with you instead Mzee,” one shouted.
“Emily will smoke her and hand her from the galambewa (eaves). Then she will go drink in my name!” he said. We laughed some more. Some stopped and picked it again long after Mzee was gone. I smiled and in utter silence, missed Mzee.
It was dusk when I alighted at Mundika, about 12 kilometres from Busia town. Hints of small kiosks, painted grass green, two dusty roads breaking from both sides of the tarmac and a bodaboda shade right at the bus stop completely describe my village. If I was to add anything, it would be food, a story for another day. Let’s get home, but first, I need to whisk away the flock of bodabodas offering their services. Today, I will walk to Buriang’i, my village.
The roads were no longer swathes of rutted mud my mother told me about on phone. The rains had stopped a few days before my arrival. Voyaging on Mundika road during the rainy season is like sailing a canoe on narrow streams of water with bumps; bounces and bangs of wild river resisting your moves.
The air had more warmth and the new maize stems danced harmoniously at the touch of a light breeze. Something deep inside me knows when I am home and immediately wakes up my happy hormones. I prepared to be woken up by the infamous Luhya cockerel crows, the smoky pain of lighting up a fire and persistent nagging from my mother to get fat. I checked my phone, the signal was lost. I knew I was home, finally.