It’s Monday morning and I am fifteen minutes late. As Kenyans in the city know, a small difference in time can mean the world in traffic. So I leave the house and dash to the stage. I prefer buses and minibuses because I was once charged twenty shillings above normal fare in a Nissan matatu, and still had to share my seat. As if to mock my plight, the matatu blazed church songs that urged all in its audience to cling to righteousness and meekness in life. I remember being the only one ranting at the conductor for the irony and disservice. But being late gives you little choice.
So I arrive at the stage this morning and no bus is in sight. I stop a matatu raging by, ask how much fare they’ll charge in advance and then plow in to the middle seat of the fourth row at the back. Off we go.
A few seconds on the road and somebody in the second row has to alight. A heavyset passenger suddenly gets on their feet and bows down beneath the low ceiling to excuse their seatmate, and voila: a glare of bare brown flesh below a maroon striped shirt is before us. My first thought is, “Urgh. This man,” before shifting my glance. Midway, I catch the aged man in the row ahead of mine turning his head away as well, disapprovingly. Me thinks he took a minute too long to conjure his verdict. His gaze had lingered a moment longer than necessary. It is somewhat amusing until the disarrayed passenger eventually sits down and I spot their dark straightened ponytail and feminine facial contour. It is a lady. I am conflicted.
Two bus stops later and the conductor is packing in more passengers into the already filled matatu. The first of the excesses is a lady with a black and white headscarf. There is a plump lady on my left and a slim dude on my right. Between us, I know we can come up with enough space for the new passenger to make do with, but no. My right knee is pressing on the back of the seat in front of me on account of my height, so I don’t barge.
“Madam, hapana. Hatuwezi tosha. Mi ni mrefu sana.”
I put my palm up in protest, so she chooses to balance herself in the space between the two seats in the passageway. I move back so my left knee does not give her spine too much hell, and we all wait as the conductor adds another excess in the isle in front of the lady. My seatmates remain quiet – the girl on my left darts her eyes to and fro the window, while the dude to my right scrolls his phone dedicatedly.
A few meters ahead and the conductor wants to milk more from lady fortune, so he asks the headscarfed lady again to move to my row.
“Wamekataa,” she says, as I stared at the conductor blankly. Later on, again, the conductor wants to add a third and fourth excess. He gets out of the matatu and comes to the window near me to urge me to make space.
“Hatuwezi tosha,” I insist, aping the fragility of an upper-class suburbanite; probably the only reason he stops fussing and leaves me alone. I must say, I am jazzed that I am able to remain calm.
He does not seem like your regular roughneck matatu conductor though, so an argument does not ensue. Somehow he squeezes in a total of four excess passengers in the three out of four rows ahead of mine, which means he has to stand, breathing over the passengers by the door the rest of the way. I snicker at his blatant greed. At the same time I go through a myriad of emotions.
At first I feel resentful towards my seatmates. I am sure they are enjoying their space just as I am, but they do not utter a word nor depict an ounce of solidarity. So, looking at the lady fitting her bottom in the void of the isle directly in front of me, I ask myself a string of questions.
Am I a mean person?
Should I feel sorry for this lady in front of me and make room for her?
It is wrong to accommodate more than three persons on my seat – Michuki Laws. But what if I am the one caught in her predicament tomorrow morning?
Knowing Ngong Road too well, there aren’t enough vehicles for public transportation, thus the excesses; at least that’s how I see it. And so with that, am I being a good Kenyan; a good human being?
What if the entire matatu was angry at me – a possibility I diagnosed?
But really, who should we be angry at? Should we be angry at the passenger refusing to divulge their seat because they have paid for it; because they are tired of being stacked like a bag of potatoes, or should we be angry at the lady knowingly boarding an already full vehicle?
Do we blame the matatu staff for wanting to partake of the stalk of ripe fruit bending the heavy laden tree that is a very broken public transport system?
Better yet, is the tree our culture that allows us – a taxpaying citizenry – to expect so little of those in power owing us?
Who should we lay the blame on?
We arrive and alight in automated silence, and I am taunted by curiosity about the thoughts of everyone who had boarded the matatu. Do they think I am a spoilt brat, a diva, for wanting what they may see as luxury, and failing to empathize with a fellow Kenyan? Well, quite possibly.
A shriveled voice in my subconscious that grows bolder in my head and my heart as I progress to work seeks to comfort me, that maybe I am doing my country a service. That maybe, this is the trend to set. That rather than wasting our energies fighting in partisan politics that we do not benefit from, we should instead spend our valuable resources rallying for public systems that work for us, because whoever gets into office will utilize the same porosity in our governance to screw us over again and again.
So by all means let’s be angry. Let’s make the kind of noise that will get them to make systems that work for us. That way we duck the arrow they keep aiming at us, that of tribalism, ignorance, poverty and conflict. Let’s aim it at them instead, they who drag their feet at fixing the country’s brokenness and rot. Let’s not stand powerless when we are stripped, harassed or robbed. That way, we win.
Michuki, with all his faults, on enacting the traffic laws, said that he wanted matatus to be able to have a level of luxury that would allow a passenger to drift into sleep. Is that such a bad idea? Are we so wretched, unworthy, that to ask for comfort would be to ask for too much?