I hate it when someone pukes in a matatu bus. We’re barely halfway into the two-hour journey to Machakos when I hear him: Braaaagh!
A grown man doubles down as he vomits. A few people behind me console him. I want to curse him.
The lights have just turned green at the Nyayo Stadium roundabout and the bus veers off, zipping down the road. At the moment the traffic is light, so we keep moving at a rapid clip. I catch a glimpse of the old trains sitting on rusting tracks as the bus speeds past the Nairobi Railway Museum. I remember the old days when I’d board those trains to Mombasa.
“Wewe buda – where’s my money,” the man two rows ahead says to the conductor as the bus halts at the next stop. The man is foreign — probably Somali. The girl on his left is draped in a hijab.
“You gave me a hundred shillings!” the conductor snaps.
“Stop fooling around, I gave you five hundred.”
The conductor ignores the agitated man and continues walking down the crowded bus — collecting money and shoving passengers out of the way as he grabs their cash. I dab my forehead with tissue as beads of sweat roll down my temples. The midday heat is stifling and worse still – this 32-seater bus is crammed with close to 40 people. I slowly exhale, closing my eyes.
This old matatu has newly installed seats. I like their furry, homely feel: their red matches the colour of the ceiling. The spaces above the windows are dotted with posters — images of musicians, pastors and politicians. Wangari Maathai, Abraham Lincoln and Malcom X glare at me from the right, while Martin Luther is the main man on the left. Shania Twain’s song, You’re Still the One, blasts from the speakers on the roof. This reggae version does not sound that good, and I wonder why the driver is blasting it out so loudly.
When the conductor faces my direction, I beckon him.
“Nini?” he asks. “What?”
“Young man, my eyesight is still intact. I saw him giving you five hundred shillings.” I point at the Somali with my walking stick.
The stick falls off my palm and tumbles onto the floor. It is dark brown: made of strong mahogany and passed on to me by my late father. When one of the passengers passes it back to me, it somehow feels more jagged.
“It’s true,” a lady in front of me speaks up. “He gave you...five hundred.”
The rickety bus slows to a crawl as it approaches red traffic lights, before it starts up again. I can hear it groan under our weight. Mombasa Road can be such a headache. I catch a glimpse of a few buildings which seem to have been haphazardly dumped in a line. A church. A petrol station. A restaurant. A used car dealership. Vehicles for sale are seated in a neighbouring yard like siblings that won’t talk to each other. I am soon distracted by people using the footbridge. They must build quite a bit of muscle climbing and descending those tall, dusty stairs. The staircase is like a misplaced gateway to the skies, arched to connect to the other side of the road. It seems to rise for an eternity before you can see the top.
I strain to stretch, reaching out towards the window. My bones ache. They were once supple – able to do anything I wanted to. Now they ache. And then there’s this smell of puke. The conductor should have cleaned it up, rather than covering it with sawdust. When I finally manage to reach the window, it won’t open.
The matatu smells of sweat, carrot mint and a newly opened bunch of mitumba second-hand clothes. Who is carrying all those clothes? Looking around, I am more than convinced that it is the young lady seated across the aisle in the row in front of me. She looks back and takes notice. I have been staring at the back of her head for a while now. Her smile fades as she turns away. Something about her reminds me of my Jane. Perhaps it is that smile. My sweet Jane always seemed happy, even when a tornado was blowing in our backyard. Death can be such a thief!
Besides the sound of the matatu’s groaning engine, silence settles amongst us until my phone rings. It is my daughter. Has she found out I am gone? No, she is just doing her duty – carrying out her weekly chore.
“Yes, Joyce, I am very well. The Home attendants are treating me well,” I reply as she engages in her usual tirade of questions. “In fact, the doctor has just left my room – just now.”
Some of my co-travellers laugh when I end the call. I cannot tell whether they are surprised by the fact that I speak fluent English or that I lied to my daughter.
“But, Pa, why would you lie?” the lady next to me asks.
Why shouldn’t I, when my only daughter put me in an old people’s home? Also – who the hell does this lady think she is, to ask me such a probing question? I ignore her. I have been in this world for almost a century and she thinks that she can second-guess me, and teach me a single lesson about life? I feel like pulling her hair.
My thoughts are interrupted when the driver almost collides with an oncoming truck. His sudden swerve saves us. Someone curses him in Swahili:
“Stupid driver! Do you think you are ferrying potatoes?”
The rest of the passengers follow suit, sharing their distaste at how the driver is navigating the road. Motes of dust from the gravel settle on everything and everyone. The driver drives more carefully.
“Shukisha!” says the Somali when we stop next. “I’m coming off here.”
“Give him his money,” I repeat. More passengers back me up again – demanding the conductor to pay the poor man back. It feels good. The conductor, a man too old for such petty theft, with a receding hairline glares at me. But he returns the money and the man nods a thank you as he slides off the matatu bus.
We carry on, and I am barely paying attention to the countryside. Eventually, we pick up another passenger.
“Beba, beba!” the conductor calls out. “Let’s pick him up!”
“But the bus is full!” I shout to the driver.
The smell of vomit has gone, I notice. The girl in the hijab has now struck up a conversation with the man beside her.
I smile at the girl whose smile reminded me of my Jane, before getting off at the junction that leads to Machakos People’s Park.
“Go well, father,” she says.
I straighten my limbs as much as I can. I wave at the bus and then make my way down the road. The road seems completely deserted. Does anyone ever come to this place? Jane and I married here, and I haven’t been back since.
I walk on, my stick balancing precariously on the tarmacked road. When a young couple, walking hand in hand appears from the corner, I am relieved. I ask for directions to the park, and they urge me forward. The sun’s golden hue sinks into the hills. I hope my feeble legs carry me there before twilight.