She boarded the 'matatu' as usual. It is seven in the morning. It was a normal routine. She had to be in class by eight.
Anyone who has lived in Nairobi knows how bad the traffic is especially in the morning and the evening. However ‘matatu’* drivers are usually very informed when it comes to knowing the shortcuts to town. It takes twenty minutes to get to town with the ‘matatu’. It takes forty-five minutes to an hour without the shortcut, depending on where one comes from.
This is a story about a shortcut that she took every morning on her way to school from home. Her home was in the Eastlands, in Nairobi, Kenya.
Houses cramped together, houses whose walls were made of sticks and mud, rusted iron sheets made the roots. This was her scenery, as the “matatu” roared down the road.
People were busy walking up and down, women making ‘mandazi’ and ‘chapati’ in the open, trying to sell them as breakfast. Just beside them was a stream of brown water, flowing down to join a river. The stream, into the river, carried plastic bags, pieces of wood and all sorts of dirt. When it rained heavily the river flowed with fury.
Other women were crowding in the communal wash area with bales of dirty clothes; others were queuing at the communal bathroom.
Men had their towels hanging on their shoulders, women had their “Lesos” wrapped firmly round their waists as they waited impatiently for the bathrooms to be vacated. More men and women had spread mats on the ground trying to sell shoes and clothes. The clothes and shoes were sold at very low prices; even with ten shillings one could get something.
This reminded her of how hard life was, but something interesting was that they looked as if they had accepted their situation, as if they did not know of another life. They did not have dull faces. They were laughing, gossiping, and quarrelling of who was first on the queue. Is it that they were oblivious of their situation, or had they just accepted it?
Children were jumping up and down as they walked to school. From the looks of their uniforms she could tell they had been worn for a long time, but it seemed like they did not care, they did not walk in embarrassment. They were just happy to be alive; did they not know of a better life? When they were hungry and their mothers did not have enough food to feed them, did they know that their leaders had refused to pay taxes, yet they banked six figure salaries every month?
Further down the road, the matatu took another turn, she caught a glimpse of a new building being erected: Poverty eradication houses. One roomed houses with communal bathrooms and toilets; she had read that in the newspapers. “Ahh..” she thought at least the government is trying to do something.
Then there was the post election violence, some of the poverty eradication houses were burned down, many were forced to flee their houses, because the neighbour was no longer a friend, this was no longer just a quarrel about who came to the queue first, it was a matter of life and death. For the unlucky ones, their houses, and the little property they had went up in flames. The leaders claimed the people were fighting for their rights.
They were taken to camps, and they waited and waited and waited, for their homes to be rebuild, for someone to press the rewind button, to take them back to the way things used to be, for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions. They waited…but Kenyan politicians were busy planning for the next election, and further disappointment was that the members of parliament had failed to pass the post election violence court bill, which would have tried the alleged perpetrators of the post election violence. The impunity!
The matatu moves faster on the rough road. Then she saw a sight that pulled her heart. An old man, his trouser folded up, was standing in a big pool of dirty water, with a rake in his hand trying to remove chunks of plastic paper and dirt from the pool. It is so cold and he did not have anything warm on, he had no protective gear on, and chances of him catching some disease from the stagnant water were almost certain. Just then another young man walked by and dumped a plastic bag in the pool of water. The old man stopped and looked up at him. The young man walked away, pretending not to realize what he had done. She cursed after him.
She was now almost in town. They passed through one of the largest markets in the city, commonly known as “gikomba”. The place was so busy and crowed, that the matatu driver was forced drive slowly and hoot his way through. Women and men were trying to sell their vegetables, clothes and other things, to wholesale buyers. Just then another interesting scene caught her eye. A young man was shouting at the top of his voice to anyone who cared to listen in the market. No one seemed to be paying attention to him, but that did not seem to discourage him, he continued preaching vigorously as he paced up and down. People shoved him as they tried making their way through with their heavy goods, but he seemed used to it. As the matatu passed him, she wondered what he was trying to accomplish. Was he genuine in his preaching?
She noticed street boys trying to steal fruits or whatever they could from unsuspecting sellers. As usual they were inhaling glue, she heard it helped them keep warm and sane. Sombreness for them was unbearable.
Those moral enough were walking around looking for casual work; like carrying heavy goods for buyers. She saw a middle aged man pulling a heavy cart full of food. She wondered how he managed to do it. How much does he earn from this job, compared to the energy he used?
He tried to hurry up so as not to inconvenience drivers more than was necessary. She could see the effort and the struggle on his face. It was early in the morning and the weather was freezing cold, but he was dripping sweat. The sad part of it all was that he earned peanuts despite of the amount of energy he put in.
She finally got into town, her head heavy with thoughts. The pulse of the town was starting to get stronger; people were opening their businesses, hoping to at least break even, if not make a profit. There was a global economic crisis; everyone was worried if they would survive it. People were hurriedly walking to work. Some of the passengers became impatient with the traffic in town and decide to alight the ‘matatu’ to walk the rest of the way. She decided to be patient.
She noticed an old bar still open. It looked dirty. Some of the windows were broken, and the door was still open. She wondered, why a bar would be open at eight in the morning. Then a man staggered out, and she realized no one came to the bar eight in the morning; they were usually there the whole night till morning.
What a pathetic life she thought, the man must have had serious problems in his life. There should be more psychiatrists in Kenya, but then again, who could afford them other than the rich.
The matatu came to the final stop. Time to face her day, she alighted the matatu and walked to school.
We do not need to see it in the television sets, or in the news papers, just by looking around us, we can see the state of hopelessness, and poverty. If she were to alight the bus and listen to the stories of those the saw through the car window, no words invented would do justice when vividly describing the height of their inner turmoil.
*Matatu- public transport in Kenya
*Mandazi/chapati-traditional pastries in Kenya made by mixing flour and sugar with water, to make dough then frying it. The ingredients differ depending on the cook
*Leso- also called kanga, a sizeable piece of cloth used by women