When you’ve been hunting money in Nairobi for long enough and now a burnout has accumulated in your small head, time usually comes for you to lay down your tools and go back home.
You will feel it. Home beckoning. Through dreams. Psychiatric fits. Ancestors calling. Your neighbour will start to annoy you. The weather will get ugly. You will contract a funny tooth ache. Tidings of spirits buried deep in the village pleading that their own goes check on where the umbilical cord was buried.
So you will go to the old bus station to take a bus.
Those with borrowed neckties and swollen bellies rush to the Third World passenger jets or shuttle vans or more complicated bus companies to purchase their tickets. Imagine the sad thing that befell travelling. Real travelling is where you go to the Machakos Country Bus to bargain the worth of your mass back home. Travel, like life, is about bargaining, arguing, quarrelling, and finally reaching a solution – everything Country Bus offers.
Sometimes the buses are so empty. But mostly they are too full with a mixture of sweat, petrol, cigarettes and lust. And stuffy and noisy and hot. A child cries here, a hen clucks there. Permission to deviate granted, thank you, folks of Kakamega always carry a chicken whether the ride is to or against the tide of the city. A chicken is a totem and is divine. It is a pet and symbol of food security. In the history of the clan, you know at least two people who got decent wives because of moving around with a hen tucked in their armpit with or without a good family name. If one is looking for a perfect opinion shaper then he looks no further. Only a fool will joke with a hen.
Now you have had a successful battle with the touts. You tussled and played low especially when they said you are proud with nothing to show. You used all your bargaining skills and eventually paid 615 bob, down from 1,250. Sign of good things to come. Though you feel you should have pulled it down to 400 because you saw the girl who came after you pay 450 without shedding a sweat. It’s over anyway and your sweat is drying. You are finally in your seat.
Next to the window.
And since a seat next to the window is among the only virgins left this side of the Sahara, you sigh and seep out a smile. The passenger next to you is an extremely large man who seems to be minding his own business so you don’t tell him your latest achievements. He holds a chicken between his knees.
Passengers are picking up stories from anywhere. Anything can be a pick-up line. They mostly sway towards politics. Even women who are essentially supposed to be talking about babies and nappies and avoid such fields of abomination are today the loudest in its midst. Times change.
“This bus, can it reach Kakamega before tomorrow 8?” someone behind you poses at no one in particular.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do before 8?” comes a reply.
“I need to report at the chief’s office tomorrow.”
“Chief you said?”
“Yes. Cows of the neighbour to the neighbour to my cousin’s brother-in-law crossed over and ate my step brother’s maize.”
“You say! So you are going to plant him maize?” asks a tired but interested voice.
“And how did you even get into the case?”
There’s a sudden commotion on the window opposite where I sit. A woman jumps up screaming. By the time we realise what is happening, the thief has already negotiated a million corners to safety. The woman who just lost her phone is left cursing, with sympathisers coming in to make her a celebrity. I look through the little space my voluminous seat mate has left and I see her wipe a tear with her leso.
“I think when we remove this government from power, such pickpockets will no longer torment us,” someone says.
The story takes long to end. The bus has now moved from Country Bus and is saying bye to the city.
“These two boys at the top are finishing us,” another contributor adds.
“But they have tried. These days I don’t have to go all the way to the Market of Nambacha to buy omena,” interjects another woman sitting at the back.
The bus goes silent. Nobody needs rocket science to know that she has touched the wrong wire with bare hands. See why women should remain confined in smoky kitchens nursing stuffy noses! Who else praises those two boys? A spell of silence befalls the bus as passengers massage their trauma. You want to turn to your friend for reassurance but remember he has not said a single word to you since he came. It’s a sad state of affairs. You did not go to Country Bus to travel on a quiet bus. This is not a grave. For everyone’s sake, this is Msamaria Mwema, it of the famed Ebenezer Transport Sacco.
You are now in the middle of nowhere. You passed Kikuyu long ago and don’t know whether you are in Burundi or Bangladesh. You’ve travelled less than a tenth of the journey yet 1,465,671 cars have overtaken you. The only sure evidence that your bus is moving is the smell from the exhaust pipe and the creaking every time it hits a pothole. If the bus will reach Kakamega in one piece then there is reason to believe in miracles. Anyhow, you pray to arrive safe and sound and early enough so this guy can see his chief.
The night has reigned in on the weak ones and most of the random talk has been left to a drunk fella at the back who won’t let mortals sleep. Still, the guy next to you hasn’t said a word.
Highway Restaurant. Passengers alight. Your seatmate alights with his chicken. Maybe they’re going to have a cup of tea. Sitting silent through all these kilometres needs a lot of steaming coffee. You stop minding him and alight silently.
There are lots of buses lazing around. Especially Modern Coast. It looks already defeated by the road yet the journey only wants to begin. So after all that hype, Modern Coast is still just a name. You get your package from the bag. You have been to Nakuru before and you knew beforehand the levels of thievery that happen here. From how they sell a small bottle of soda at 150, to how a cup of tea without milk goes at 300. Let them be conned alone. You are planned. So you extract your midnight lunch. Three roast cobs of maize. You start digging into it. You walk around showing off to people from Modern Coast who paid all their money at the fare counter and forgot that man lives to eat, not to be foolish.
You bump into your man empty handed. Where is his chicken? He could have eaten it alone. This man doesn’t look like a good person. What if he has decided to eat the whole chicken with feathers and the beak? That would be very bad because where you are going, not even a witch eats a hen as alone as this. Or he has sold it to the restaurant. Which would still be very bad. Selling a chicken to these people just like you are selling beans! You decide you will ask him when he comes back.
Time to leave. One person missing. The driver honks for over five minutes. Your seatmate does not appear, and you don’t see the chicken. In a bus of 58 adults and uncountable children, how does just one man with a chicken vanish just like that?
Angry but concerned passengers start discussing why he is not here. Some say he got lost. Another says he might have decided to go back to Nairobi. The chicken has vanished so he is tracing it? Someone says he could be in the toilet. An ignorant one asks how someone can stay in the toilet this long. The one in the know says it could be diarrhoea, you never know.
You try to imagine him sweating in a toilet and pushing out undigested feathers and beaks. From his body size you approximate that he will need slightly over an hour to liberate himself from the mess of his greed. You pity him.
You remember how one day you were going on a school trip in Kisumu and just moments after passing Chavakali you started having crumbs and contractions. You went to the bush and let out the nuisance. You went again and then again. The third time they agreed you had stayed there too long. The class teacher, one Mwalimu Amani Mwimali ibn Kassim, beat you up so hard you almost let yourself on yourself again. Then he ordered you to remove your shoes because that is what was causing the diarrhoea. It paid. At least up to Majengo. When you started descending Kiboswa, hell broke loose again and this time the driver didn’t have to control the proceedings. You jumped off the bus before he could find a place to park. And you agree you stayed in the bush an age.
So if the 58th guy is on a war front in some toilet, it is only understandable.
Finally the man comes after half an hour. Nobody talks to him. He has his chicken tucked in his armpit. Relief. You set off.
You are awakened by a sudden impact. There are screams all over. You blink to catch the last scream. People are cursing. You look outside. The bus is in a ditch that overhangs a slope into the thick bush below. If the bus moved just an inch further then this story would have ended with the protagonist’s lifeless body being eaten by hyenas downhill.
People are praying as they disembark. Thanking God. For what? Why do people celebrate when they miss death by a whisker? What is there to celebrate when fate has merely repositioned itself to a time you will be more vulnerable? Seeing them sigh you’d think they will never see the inside of a grave. Like they will never rot and grow maggots and smell. Long ago the fear of death was a monopoly of the rich. Today all confirmed peasants travelling in a rickety bus with squeaking joints can also hold the chests on their obese bodies and sigh that they have escaped. Do they even know what escape is? Sad times to live.
Humanity became petty when they thought that God should be thanked when they escape death. What when one dies? These are the people society expects to give direction to the young. How does one give what one doesn’t have? You are very upset how big people have embarrassed you. You should have travelled with Modern Coast and known that there is nothing to like in this world.
Anyway, the men in the bus hustle to get it out of the trench. Your mate stands at a distance with his bird watching. When everything is set back to normal and the driver has been reminded to drive well, you continue.
You wake up when the bus is crawling into Khayega. The cock on your friend’s laps crows. It also knows it is home and that 5.30 is the time to greet old friends and brag to that proud hen in a Nairobi accent.
Another cock answers from the back, maybe to say bruh, you ain’t alone.
Kokoliokooo! The first one insists. The driver stops the bus again at Ikhonga Murwe. You feel the smell of home.
After several months, many have come back for a funeral. Others have come to fix the neighbour who is always playing with the land boundary. Others have come because the mothers are sick. Others have come back for good after failing the rent test in the city. You have come to greet your folks and you have some change. What else is good life?