I’m peering into the door. I look around. I see faces that are expectant for the final customer. I see one girl that I usually see around back in the area in which I stay. I’ve said hi to her a couple of times. But it’s awkward, at least for me, because after one year, it has never gone past the occasional hi.
Sometimes I meet her and I look straight forward and pretend I’ve not seen her. You know that sort of people? Sometimes you wonder why they even bother saying hi to you. Or why you say hi to them.
Anyway, this conductor is pushing me from behind, urging me to get into the matatu so that we can go. I don’t see any seats; not empty ones. I know the conductor also doesn’t see any empty seats, but still, he expects me to get in.
I know that I’m supposed to squeeze myself somewhere between that man who amenona round and that skinny guy who looks like a serial killer, but I’m fed up. I decide that I can do better than that. As I step back and tell the impatient conductor that, “Gari imejaa,” I feel a swell of pride within me.
I feel good that I’ve stood up for myself against the oppression of these money worshipping touts. I have refused to be handled like a goat. I have chosen to sacrifice some time in waiting for the next matatu in exchange for my comfort and dignity.
Also, I hope that I’ve inspired my mates in the matatu; that I’ve been like a Dedan Kimathi to them, showing them that they can do something to fight this oppression.
I’m standing outside the matatu, proudly standing my ground, when some buffoon comes and gets into the matatu; effectively undermining the revolution that I had hoped to start. Well, after the matatu leaves the stage, I tell myself not to judge the buffoon because well, I have been that buffoon in the past; most recently last week.
I slowly walk to the next matatu and occupy the privileged seat at the front, the one that resembles the driver’s. That in itself gives me a sense of satisfaction. I’m already reaping the fruits of my patience and my earlier sacrifice.
As I sit at my privileged spot waiting for the matatu to fill up, I look outside and my eyes immediately rest on a curious creature. He is in a blue short sleeved shirt that has a black, easily visible patch of oil on one sleeve. There is a bulge on his right cheek. I start wondering which strange disease he is suffering from, only to stop when he shifts the bulge to his left cheek. He then chews on it; in a way that reminds me of our cow back in the village.
Some thirty minutes later, as my tout holds the door for me to get out, I will notice that he has that same bulge and I will try to detect the smell of miraa in his breath. I won’t detect anything that smells like miraa so I’ll be left wondering what it is that they chew.
For now, as I look at the tout shifting the bulge from side to side in his mouth, I remember this guy who was consistently asking me out some time ago. I had consistently told him no and in an attempt to make me regret not choosing him, he asked a friend of mine out. This friend, she didn’t know about him and I and she started going out with him. She also got pregnant. Somehow, this guy, who was a campus student, ended up becoming a tout.
I recently saw him – from some distance away – and I ended up turning and changing my route to avoid him. From that distance, I saw his bloodshot eyes. I saw his ugly lips. In my head, I smelled the stench from his dirty looking clothes. I saw him receive a cigarette stub from a fellow tout and proceed to pull on it as if his life depended on how hard he pulled. It didn’t matter that he struggled to hold the stub in his fingers because it looked really small.
The mother to his child had dropped out of school to have the child. I wasn’t sure she was coming back. I thought about the child. I thought about his father. I felt like saying a quick prayer on their behalf. Then I thought that the prayer I should really offer is one of thanks. Because I could have been the mother to his child but I was lucky. Or I had more sense. It doesn’t really matter.
I had forgotten that there’s one more seat at the front to be filled and now, I throw daggers as I look at a man asking me to shove over and occupy the seat in the middle. I hate that seat. It looks like it’s meant for a child. I would insist that I’m sitting on the adult’s chair immediately next to the door, but this guy is huge and he looks like my father. To tell the truth, I’m the child here so I just puff out my cheeks and slide over.
Moments later, the driver gets in and starts the vehicle. Is it just me or is he shifting the gears rather enthusiastically? I wore a short skirt today and a generous portion of my legs is out. I move them to the side. I don’t want the driver’s big, black hand to brush rather roughly on them again.
Our journey starts. A minute later, we are cruising down the highway at the characteristic maximum speed of 40 kph. My attention is brought back to the road when the driver slows down. There’s a sleek, red car in front of us. It’s moving even slower than we are. I can see the image of a woman in the red car’s side mirror.
That’s what I want to be when I grow up: A smartly dressed woman driving a sleek vehicle. But I won’t be causing snarl ups on the road. I’ll be zooming past men in their vehicles with my windows rolled down, the wind running through my hair and with sun glasses covering my eyes. I’ll be flashing a dazzling smile at the hot guys and winking as I leave them for dead. I’ll be making men whistle, not click and honk the way our driver is doing at the moment.
Just when the driver has begun issuing a torrent of abuses that should ideally be unspeakable, the woman gets off the road. As we drive past her, the tout half stands through a window and tries making us laugh at her expense. I wish his comments are at least humorous. But they aren’t and at least now I understand that I shouldn’t hold it against him when he insists on carrying excess passengers. All he wants is the money to buy that thing he is chewing and who knows, perhaps he is a father somewhere.
As I think of that tout, I’m reminded of a class mate of mine back in high school. We used to board a matatu to school every day because we were day scholars. This friend of mine, Shiru, she was beautiful. I know she was beautiful because several times I was stopped by these breathtakingly handsome boys and my heart skipped a beat but it turned out that they were just asking me about her. With time, my heart learnt not to skip a beat at the sight of a cute boy.
Anyway, Shiru, she attracted the attention of the touts. It wasn’t surprising given that she attracted almost anything in trousers, even our teachers, one of whom she once told me she had kissed in the lab after a Biology session. There was this one tout though. He wasn’t discouraging to look at like most of the other touts. If anything, he was encouraging to look at. This tout, Mwas, he went out of his way for Shiru.
Where the other touts would eagerly help Shiru to climb into the matatu by giving her a push on her ass, Mwas would offer to hold her bag as she boarded and offer to hold her hand in support as she climbed out. He would instruct the driver to play Kookoo by Elanior Ukimwona by Diamond and look at Shiru with a dimply, pleasant smile and a sexily side-burned face, making it obvious that the whole matatu was listening to the song because it was a dedication to her.
One day, Shiru forgot her fare and Mwas, with a perfectly soothing voice, told her not to worry. She was a princess to him. A princess shouldn’t have to worry about fare. And Shiru never worried about fare from that day. Neither did I, when she told him that I was her friend. All we had to worry about was timing Mwas’ matatu, which we grew pretty good at with time.
Shiru would find a lollipop waiting for him when she boarded the matatu. She would suck on it as she listened to the hit love song of the day, played specifically for her. I’ll admit it was a sweet life, even for me.
It was very sweet, right until Shiru got pregnant and I learnt that all those ten shilling lollipops and free rides had not been for free.
She dropped out of school and I learnt to put a spare fifty shilling note and a lollipop in a small pocket in my bag; in case I ever forgot my fare or someone offered me a lollipop and I felt tempted to take it.
Oh! I’m home. After I alight from the matatu, as I watch it drive away and wait for the road to clear up so that I can cross, I remove a lollipop from my bag and suck on it, thinking that my friends must really have bad luck with touts.