They smell the damp smell of their houses. They smell kerosene smoke and poverty. Sometimes the bus plays Mugithi to hide us from our conditions. Sometimes it is Bob Marley or Lucky Dube who bring peaceful violence into us. Sometimes the seat-mate bursts a bed bug walking in his loins, and we share the smell together. Sometimes a preacher comes and if we can afford, we give something of the little we have to the man of God. Sometimes the bus gets stuck in the traffic and we sit in thought. Of the landlord and shopkeeper and the tailor whom we still owe 30 bob. Sometimes we think of our first love and how broken we were when it was cut; we wonder if they got married. We think of the village. The smell of flowers and the slow tempo and the mad man or even the violent bull of Chitechi. We miss to hear the shit hit the bottom of latrine pits. We always think lots of things together in the semi-darkness of a 4 AM city bus.
Sometimes we think far. Of our uncle who disappeared in the last election fracas. Is he dead or alive or unwell, nobody knows. We think of Mother. We think of the village pauper. We try to fathom why he has no wife, no brother, no family. They say he came from Rwanda some decades back. We think of the people living across on the other side of the city. Their castles scattered in quiet stretches of forested land. Whenever we reach there, we stop to think because we are not sure we are still thinking.
Sometimes it is just the simple thanks to God that at least we afforded bus fare today. Or the appreciation for our family and friends being in our lives. We think how our children will live tomorrow, and thank God that if it is not money, we shall bequeath them a wealth of character and attitude. As the bus manouvres the road, we manouvre corners in our heads.
In the evening we shall not be together. Some of us will still afford the bus back. Some of us will trot back home carrying dinner for the family. Some of us will just walk, from nothing, to nothing. Others will yield to the shame of returning with naked hands and so they’ll go to a den somewhere and drink themselves to hell. Hell of satan.
Reflecting now, we realise we cannot go back to the village. We came to the city to earn and get rich and help folks back home; it would be shame to go back empty handed. We ran away from poverty in the village, but we now discover we are even poorer years later. We realise we’ve been chasing our own tired shadows that refuse to be chained in some box of a material world.
So in the evening, those of us who shall be lucky will board Forward. Even the names give us the hope that we are advancing. We shall squeeze in the vehicle. A woman will come to the back-seat and squeeze into the narrow space remaining. Her ribs will eat into my ribs and it will hurt. She will be carrying a sack and she will put it on her laps. Then she will ask me to help carry her four-year-old because her six-year-old will be standing between our knees. The man on my right will be holding a red cock, like the one that carried the betrayal of Yeso Kristo. I know, because the thing will be so huge it can be dowry for an 18-year-old. He will be coming from the village attending a land dispute meeting. And the foul will be making so much noise, competing another man howling into his phone over some funeral arrangement back in the village where one Opwora has refused to cooperate.
The child on my laps will be heavy. But I love children. She will tell me she is called Bebi and her sister is Diana. Bebi will hold my collar and tell her mother how my shirt resembles her dad’s. By the time I will alight, I will have answered a thousand questions from the girl who will also want to alight with me to go see my daughter (I’ve already told her I have a girl her age).
The bus will stick in the traffic for long. But we shall sit in patience. People will keep exchanging a word with their seat-mates. Sometimes a joke. But mostly it will be the conductor’s remarks that will leave us happy. Evening buses don’t play loud music. Just the time conductors begin to talk.
Three months from now.
I will hear the chants from far. At first I will not know on whose side they will be. Then, slowly, and as they advance, singing, howling, grunting, cursing, I will listen and hear the words. And the language. Then I will shut my eyes from my position under the bed. I will pray the hundredth time. But it will be late. Too late.
They will knock down the door and come to the room. I will see their feet first. Deformed feet. Dirty feet. Missing-toe feet. I will see my feet in their feet. Then with one deft movement, the bed will go upturned. And we, exposed.
They will grab Tabitha first. She will gasp and try to resist. Amani will give a yell at the sudden shoving of her mother. That will be the last time I will hear Amani’s voice. The machete will come straight for the neck, crushing the fragile bone of the upper spine. I will watch as my daughter drops dead. I will die inside. A cord of meaning will be cut forever.
My loins will drench at the sight. I will want to rise to rescue any remaining bit of her. My blood. I will not find strength. Strength, the one I have always had walking to town and fro, will have gone too.
Motherhood will overcome Tabitha. She will go to her fours in an attempt to save our dead Amani. She will struggle in the now cooling blood. She will shake the limb form. She will hold it to her chest with the flailing hands falling both sides. She will return it to the ground and try to fix the dangling head. She will call. She will repeat the name, sometimes rolling the body as if waking it up for school.
Then she will be whisked off the ground. They will rip off her dress. The one Aunt gave her after we got married. I will watch as they dirt my wife. Tabitha will cry in pain and in frustration and in hate. Her eyes will be on me; calling me for help. She will ask me to save her. I will avoid her eyes. If only she knew. If only she knew that she and Amani have been my only security in the world.
Two men will come to me. Like they are noticing me for the first time. They will whisk me off the ground just as they have done my wife. One will lock my neck with an elbow from behind while the other will touch his panga to my adam’s apple. Some of the rest will be waiting for their turn on Tab, while those already done will be urging my holders to finish the job quickly.
“What are you still doing here, cockroach?” the one holding a panga will ask.
Words will fail me. Not because they call ‘outsiders’ cockroaches. They will fail me because for the first time I will register the face of the person asking. He will be Andi, the friend who first introduced me to the Indians at Industrial Area when I first sought my first job here. Andi, the one who always brings our family avocadoes whenever he goes to the village. It will be him, real and present.
Words will fail me because of the memories between Andi and I. On several occasions when he went to villages looking for bananas for his trade, I was the one who took care of his family. His three children were my children and my wife has been the real sister to his wife. Just last month he brought Amani a doll and said the girl was growing fast. That was before the war. That day Amani didn’t sleep at home. She followed her Uncle and although our houses are three doors apart, Amani did not return till the following morning because she said she was playing with her sisters.
Andi and I have walked to town together. We have roamed garages and car wash places looking for work. In the evenings we have on many occasions sat in front of our iron sheet block and talked about life. About our dreams and fears and about our landlord. I have borrowed from him money to buy bread and he has borrowed from me money for the hospital bill.
“What are you still doing here, Impure Blood?” he will repeat. He will hit me with the side of the panga. Blood will clot in the cheek where the panga will have landed. My gums will rapture and more blood will fill my mouth. I will look him in the eye. At least I will afford that. I will travel and marvel in the depths that I will see behind his cornea. No violence. I will see a map of our story. I will see our brotherhood. I will see pretension. Not in the past.
Then I will hear a shriek. Looking in the side, I will be brought back to the present by Tabitha’s body hitting the ground. Her throat will be gushing fresh blood. She will look at me, trying to mumble something. It will be too late. Words, the easiest music of the air, will betray her. And me. I will watch her eyes bulge out larger. Then her struggles will reduce. She will lie still, eyes still on me. She will find peace.
Then the men will have grown impatient. They will remind Andi that there is no time. That they need to brush the hood and remove spots of impurity. Andi will raise his panga as the man behind takes a step away. I will see the rusty tool descend. I will close my eyes and wait….
If you are reading this then you are alive. But being alive alone does not count. Living the expanse of the earth alone is as uncomfortable and humiliating as death itself. So make it count. Make people live. Shun intolerance. We can disagree. People disagree so many times. Ethnicity, religion, nationality, race, gender, politics; all these are existent only to give us identity. So that we have Muhammad Ali the Jew and Muhammad Ali the nigger. Just names. But beyond them are our real struggles with poverty, hunger, disease, fate.
As you make war, hunger and poverty are waging a bigger war on your children, your mothers, your generation, yourself.