This is me, sunken in seat number 14 of Eazy Coach. 8.27am. The Kisii-Nairobi bus journey starts in 18 minutes. In my hands is the Daily Messenger, a newspaper I bought to help me while the morning away. I’ve skimmed through it and, going by the news headlines, I doubt if fish in this country will want to be wrapped with any of its pages.
And the perfume smelling all over is from a lady on seat number 15. That could be an odour or a fragrance depending on where your doctor starts filling your asthma test papers.
Her smell and all, she will be my neighbour for the next seven hours.
That is enough time for me to shout through the perfume layer surrounding her (the smell warns me that this must be thicker than ozone) and, who knows, this 15th day of October might be the day I will be referring to when my kids ask how I met their mother.
And that bag over there, that black bag on the luggage rack over my head, carries my everything as I go hunting for a job in the city.
It has my clothes, my identification documents, my academic papers, my manuscripts, my everything. The whole of Matoke Evans Mogeni, other than the one you are seeing here on seat number 14, is in that not-so-new bag. Steal it and you will have taken half of Matoke.
But Matoke will not sit there and be diplomatic while you steal his bag. Matoke will cause a stink if you get your suspicious hands near his bag. Matoke hates thieves. He will use his university training as a criminologist to track down any thief. Matoke doesn’t call himself Sherlock Holmes for no reason.
It is for that reason that I have placed a note at the bottom of the bag for anyone who might succeed in stealing it: “Dear thief, I don’t know who you are, but I will find you and ensure that a half of you gets kidnapped by Boko Haram and the other half by ISIS.”
Looking at the Eazy Coach passengers is a study in long faces, stone faces, grumpy faces, wrinkled faces . Pray, did someone whip these people into this 48-seater to travel to the capital on a Wednesday morning?
Thank God for the radio in the bus that is pumping in some life through lingala music. 8.36am. KoffiOlomide’s song Skol bombards the ears of the melancholic passengers.
Driver ignites engine. Revving starts.
I steal a glance at the Miss Generous Perfume through the edge of my left eye. She is staring at her white phone, earphones in place.
She is on Facebook, perhaps. She is probably updating something about a short man seated next to her in a bus who is clutching at the country’s top newspaper as if his life depends on it. She is likely to have placed an “mschew” somewhere in that status to complain why a passengers can sit so comfortably in a public vehicles, throwing his legs all over as if he is a suicide bomber who has just remembered how many virgins await him after he is done with his mission.
Or she could be on Twitter typing away about a lifeless morning inside a bus, or perhaps ranting that there is a man who is stealing glances at her so greedily. Twitter users classify such men under #TeamMafisi, or #TeamHyenas. Well, Matoke is not one of those.
Maybe she is writing that she admires her bus neighbour. True. When she entered the bus and found me seated, our eyes met on top of my Daily Messenger and I thought she didn’t frown. I thought her eyes, inserted on a powdered chocolate-coloured face, did not register disgust in the milliseconds we looked at each other in the eye. I like to think I’m handsome. I would have been more handsome, though, if my nose wasn’t made too flat. And my ears should have been smaller. I like to imagine myself as a crossbreed of US President Barrack Obama and Billy Cosby’s mother. Proportion issues aside, I know I’m quite something.
“Anybody uncomfortable before we start?” asks the conductor.
Outside, Kisii town is already full with people on the paper chase. Then a hawker looks up my window, asks if I can help myself to some mineral water or biscuits or chewing gum or groundnuts or some soda or a padlock or Bahati’s latest gospel CD. He doesn’t look like he has sold anything this morning.
“Gani mkubwa (Which one, big man)?” he asks.
I shake my head, “Niko sawa (I’m okay).”
He walks away, pokerfaced.
From the radio in the bus, there is the voice of a woman asking for callers’ advice about a pregnancy she got out of her marriage.
Okay, woman. Thanks for letting the whole world advise you about something you did alone.
There being no complaint from any passenger, the journey starts.
Time to have a deeper look at my newspaper. Today might be the day I find an advertised vacancy that will see me finally get into a payroll somewhere.
Front page headline: “Nation awaits Ebola test results for airport patient.”
The public health department will today release Ebola test results of a patient who caused a scare at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport yesterday.
The department’s head told the Press that it would be premature to conclude that the patient, who had flown from Uganda, had the Ebola virus even as she displayed symptoms similar to those of the killer disease . . .
Where is Idi Amin when you need him? That goddamned virus needs to ferried in bulldozers and dumped into the river it is named after.
Story continues on page two. It haunts, this picture that shows heavily protected people in yellowish attire. With knapsack sprayers on their backs, they carry a corpse in a body bag. The masks they wear make each of them look like the Grim Reaper himself. The caption says someone has died at a village in Liberia. Not the first; definitely not the last. He has to be buried “properly”, and the Grim Reapers are here to ensure that happens.
Rest in peace, poor soul. It must have been painful dying hungry, thirsty and without anyone by your side.
Page three headline: “Teachers threaten to strike as talks collapse.” No news. It happens around this time every year. National exams are drawing closer, aren’t they?
Page five headline: “MPs in fresh bid to increase perks”. This is also not news, you Daily Messenger writers.
Kazana University is on the whole of page six. And oh, my neighbour looks interested in this advert. I can feel her eyes roving over the page. This is no time for conversation, though. The ad reads:
Kazana University is an accredited institution of higher learning. We offer certificate, diploma and degree courses at affordable rates as shown in the table below. Hurry! Very limited spaces for our November intake. . .
Go, on, Kazana. Go on. Educate the country’s youths. And thanks for not mentioning how much you charge for your courses; just affordable. You are not like the rest of them. You genuinely want to churn fully-baked graduates who will create jobs.
That is good of you, Kazana. But one day I’ll call your offices to know why newspapers usually have more learning slots advertised than job vacancies. I’ll call over that small matter. I’ll call.
Now we are at Keroka hills. I can hear snores from various parts of the vehicle as passengers have their forty winks. But one particular snore is most prominent, of a man probably having 80 or 120 winks. His tractor snores make one wonder when frogs entered a throat swapping deal with humans.
The mist over the Keroka hills adds some paleness that, rather than draw life out of the tea plantations and other farms in sight, makes them look livelier; divine even.
The bus roars as its tyres roll on the winding road cutting across hilly terrain. Hills upon hills slowly reverse out of sight as Eazy Coach accelerates through. The 10 o’clock sun is slowly taking a toll on the misty conditions and Keroka appears as if it is being unveiled.
“Quite a sight, what do you think?” I ask the perfumed lady, intending to make it the ice-breaker.
“Quite a sight,” she responds, still paying lots of attention to her phone, half interested. That is not the tone for me to start introductions.
Back to my newspaper.
Some politician will be very mad at this editorial cartoon on page 12. Cartoonist Dittoh drew Members of Parliament as pigs today, labelling them “M-Pigs”. Don’t the pigs appear more warlike than real-life ones? And they all have horns? And who are those they are feeding on? Ah, he has labelled them “citizens”. But why did Dittoh make the citizens look so emaciated, so helpless and so miniature, as if they are sardines in a can? Why do they have to be eaten with salt? And it appears the pigs won’t be satisfied even when they are done eating all the “food” before them.
Time to jump to the weekly magazine insert.Daily Lifemagazine it is.
Cover story headline: “Who will help me trace my daughters in Saudi Arabia?”
Angeline Walaba throws a blank stare at us, which for a moment makes us think she has changed her mind about an interview she called us for.
She stares at the roof of her house at the Kibera slums as if it she wants to talk directly to God. Her bloodshot eyes leave little to guess as to the kind of nights she has been having.
Her two daughters aged 20 and 22, the only children she has, have not communicated with her from Saudi Arabia for a year now.
“They were promised that they would land on a job as soon as they got there. I was happy. I knew God had answered my prayers. So they left. We were in communication for the first three months of their stay before both went silent,” she tells Daily Life Magazine when she finally settles down for a chat.
“Could my Doreen and my Gladys have been killed and hidden like I hear it happens to others? Could they have been converted into slaves without a right to communicate to the outside world? Could they be in jail languishing in pain instead of earning the better life they were promised?” wonders the 40-year-old. . .
Poor woman. I’ll finish reading this feature later. It is also not the newest of things anyway. People have died in the Middle East; I have read that before. People have been enslaved on that land of oil. Others have escaped to tell their stories — I have read all that.
Time to look at what the satire columnist who calls himself “New Broom” had to write. The title of this week’s piece is, “Goat has refused to be slaughtered today.”
Goat? New Broom is known for hitting hard at the powers-that-be. Why is he discussing goats today? I read along. Several paragraphs down, I find this:
Goat says his slaughterers are greenhorns, too junior to kill him properly. Goat wants to die in experienced hands. Goat doesn’t want his meat rejected; he wants to be eaten fully. That it is only seasoned slaughterers who can kill him the way he likes best and make his meat worth selling. He is now looking at the young butchers with all the defiance a goat can summon. They can’t shoot him, they can’t stone him. They know they have to kill him the way he wants. . .
The piece leaves me caressing my goatee. It will sink in later, maybe.
Eazy Coach is now cruising across the Narok plains. It is earth cracks galore in this side of Kenya, features that scream about how badly the land longs for another sip of rain.
Three or four times, we come across Maasai pastoralists, clad in their trademark red shukas (sheets) braving the scorching midday sun and dusty conditions to lead tired-looking cows, rebellious goats and reluctant sheep as they graze by the road. My neighbour uses her phone to take a photo of one big herd. She must be an animal enthusiast or something.
Someone five or six rows in front of me is on phone. She is telling the recipient to check page 56 of the Messenger.
“Just apply”, she says, noisily ruffling the pages of her newspaper
“Experience? Some of those things are meant to scare scallywags like you,” she cackles as she winds up the conversation.
I jump to the page and several ads stare at me. The one sitting on the most acreage on the page reads:
A newly established retail chain is looking for a General Manager, Chief Risk Officers (2 positions), Internal Auditors (3 positions) . . . Minimum three years’ experience at a busy retail chain required. . .
I’ll tell my college friend Susan to try. She studied accounting and may want to be an auditor. I unlock my phone then create a new SMS.
“What did the new knife say to the old jar of margarine?” I type and then send. 1.42pm.
Susan responds after a minute. “It said, ‘Nice to meet you, old boy. It is about time you opened up so I can spread your good word to all corners of all bread slices.’”
“Wrong”, I reply, “It said, ‘Dear margarine, I will apply you on any slice with cutting-edge precision, though my inexperience is giving me a migraine.’”
“On that note, look for today’s Messenger. On page 56 there’s a vacancy for internal auditors. They want three years’ experience. You have zero, you new knife! Give it a shot anyways.”
“Good girl. And remember to . . .”
Oh, the driver has applied emergency brakes. Bus stops all of a sudden. My phone hits the seat in front of me, crashes on bus floor.
Hell, a gunshot.
Another shot. Bus windscreen gives in.
Dush! Dush! Dush! Dush!
Matoke you’re dead meat. Matoke, duck below the window. You’ll be shot, Matoke. Those might be terrorists.
I obey my inner voice and duck. My neighbour has already ducked, as most other passengers have.
My poor heart will burst today.
For once I regret why I sat beside the window. I hear a gunshot, accompanied by the sound of smashing glass. Then a woman groans in pain from behind me. That is a groan of death. That is a soul departed.
I think the driver has also been shot. Could these be the terrorists who vowed to avenge the arrest of their leader? There is no time to think.
Matoke you might die today. These ambushes never end well. Say Hail Mary, Matoke.
A hooded man enters the bus, wielding a gun in hand. He doesn’t say a thing.
Don’t keep peeping like that, Matoke. Pretend you’re not looking!
A girl cries from the backseat then a shot rings.
Kupt! Kupt! Kupt! Then they stop. Someone has stopped by my seat.
Matoke this is the day. This is the day that the Lord has made.
I’m hit on my nape. By the butt of a gun, I think. I don’t know why I don’t find it painful, though it induces a little dizziness in me.
My neighbour is hit too. I can hear her wince in pain. I can hear more winces and suppressed cries.
Matoke you are next. You are next, Matoke.
There are now more tormentors in the bus. Each of them paces up and down in no hurry whatsoever. How deathly it is, the sound of their boots on the bus floor! Like an undertaker coming for a new assignment at a hospital bed.
Shots, thuds, blows, kicks. Passengers are all silence as they take the beating. One passenger’s groan has however lasted more than a minute. He says he wants his little girl. That he has a message for her before he goes. Then a shot rings.
Am I not trembling too loudly? Aren’t my teeth clasping too loudly to expose me?
That’s the millionth blunt object that has hit me. My spine may give in.
One of the people’s boots leaves patches of blood next to me and the perfumed lady as the attacker makes way to the entrance from the backseat. This is death.
I can’t believe I’ve not fainted. I may come to you any moment, God. Forgive my misgivings in my 27 years on earth.
Then I hear a vehicle stop beside the bus.
Matoke, now they have brought explosives. You will now be blown up. You are now mincemeat, Matoke.
Then a voice from a loudspeaker, “All surrender or we come for you!”
The attackers now rush to the door.
Gunshots.Groans.The smell of blood.The smell of fuel. Someone’s guts must have been slit open. It is hell in the bus.
And why has my neighbour risen even as the crossfire rages? Why is she courting death? Where on earth is she going to?
“Tic, toc, tic, toc,” her shoe heels’ sound as she paces ahead is scarier than the attackers’.
Don’t follow her, Matoke. It will be suicidal. Just keep feigning death.
And my nose is bleeding rather worryingly.
The gunshots last an eternity.
“Sisi ni askari.Hao manyang’au tumemaliza.Tokeni tuwasaidie (We’re the police. We’re done with those hyenas. Come out we rescue you),” I hear a voice.
There is hesitation among the passengers. They heard what happened at Westgate.
Or are they all dead?
Matoke, that is a genuine police voice. Just obey.
I rise. Walk out of the bus. Blood.Intestines.Corpses.
Outside I see police cars, ambulances, and lots of people.
Next moment I’m in a hospital bed. Everything appears hazy at first, and it is oh-so-quiet.
For several minutes, I can’t figure out if I am in a dream or imagining things. I have had this dream several times before, of being in a state where you can’t open your eyes even when you wish to. Where you want to scream but your voice fails you; you want to run but something somehow prevents you.
Finally, everything falls into focus.
Wait, a gas mask on me? A bandage at the back of my head? Goodness gracious, how did I come here?
Then I notice someone seated by my bed. She is reading a bloodied copy of the Messenger. That is my yesterday’s newspaper — I had put my signature on it.
She looks at my face for some time.
“Remember me?” she asks.
The pain all over my neck almost prevents me from shaking my head.
“My name is Millicent Kwambai. I was on seat number 15 in the bus yesterday. I was part of the crew that transported you to hospital after you came out of the bus and collapsed seconds later. It was a terrorist attack. Here, see today’s paper,” she says, removing a Daily Messenger paper from a purse.
What photo do I see on the front page? That is me stepping out of Eazy Coach. Oh my, was the bus sprayed with so many bullets? That is my bloodied shirt. That is me holding my newspaper by my chest, to shield the blood gushing from my nose from staining my clothes. The caption on the bottom of the photo starts with “A man . . .” but the font is too small I can’t read the rest. The text on top of the photo is more visible: “Leap of Faith.”
Was my face this bloody as I left the bus?
The headline screams, “Seven passengers, five terrorists killed in afternoon ambush.”
No, this is not happening.
Then without a warning, she folds the paper and returns it to the purse, perhaps after seeing a disturbed look on my face.
“I was actually a detective in the bus. I’m the one who signalled the police to come to the scene. I think I liked your courage, being the first to rise after I told the passengers to do so,” she says, looking at me with keen interest.
I don’t know what to feel.
(A SHORT STORY BY ELVIS ONDIEKI, © 2015)