The bags are heavy, but he offers to carry them for us. We grab the lighter ones, and he leads us to where his bus should be parked. He tells us his name is Jethro, i find it funny, but i stifle my laughter, the bags are heavy, and I don’t want to offend our help. He says he is here loading luggage and getting passengers at a commission, cause he doesn’t want to rob people, and his grades in the final exams can not get him a better job. As we walk to the bus station, tells me the journey will take us eight hours, i regret that my battery is half full. I could have done with some music.
The station is crowded, somewhere a ticket man is telling a passenger that the luggage will not attract a charge, but the passenger is more interested in a cheaper ticket than anything else. I am tempted to follow him, we don’t have a lot of money, and we will be in Chavakali for a week. Jethro motions to us to follow him, we skip over puddles of mud, we squeeze past two buses parked close together, and finally we get to his bus.
Its not as grand as he led us to believe, its even a bit old for a long journey like the one we are about to start, but the price is just as we agreed. He talks to the ticket man. We agree we will pay later, because ‘M-PESA’ is not working. As security, I hand over my phone. As the bus is not yet full, we go to a kiosk for dinner, and Jethro comes along. As we make light work of the ugali and fried beans, he tells me he is saving towards buying a motorbike and relocating back home, that will hopefully free him from having to wait on passengers. I don’t say anything, not because I’m not interested but because all i can think about is my phone, if M-PESA doesn’t start operating on time.
Humphrey tips Jethro, and we board the bus. It’s not full, and we sit at the back. I can afford to stretch out, I open a packet of groundnuts I bought from a child vendor outside and start chewing on them. Humphrey looks out into the distance, we are going to the funeral of his sister in western Kenya, and I know the sound of the bus’ engine as we start inching closer to his home is another reminder that this is the last time he will see her. He passes on groundnuts, and I slowly chew on them, I close my eyes, lost in thought than trying to savour the taste. We play soccer for our church team together and today his bubbly personality is gone, replaced by passive replies and a sombre expression, I spread out on the seat and attempt to sleep.
I am awakened by clamor on the bus, people are filling up the empty seats, and I sit up, my eyes puffy and red, I look around for Humphrey, I can see him talking to a young man we left Nairobi with. We are now in Naivasha, its cold, and the passengers coming in all have heavy sweaters or jackets, the women have scarves wrapped around their necks. I move over to the corner seat. The passenger next to me is a burly, middle aged man, he says hi, and proceeds to untangle his earphones and plug them in. I feel for my phone. I remember it’s with the ticket man, I heave a sigh of despair, and attempt to fall asleep again. I motion to Humphrey, I mouth “MPESA inafanya?”, he checks his phone and shakes his head. I slump down in my seat, and hope I can fall asleep for the next five hours. .
I wake up at Nakuru, for the bathroom break. My hunger sees me eat steaming hot french fries without fear of getting scalded. MPESA is now working and I get my phone back. No missed calls, no messages. The journey continues, we pass through Eldoret, Turbo, Langas and Huruma as dawn is breaking. The scenery is beautiful, hard to believe that this place bore the brunt of the horrors that unfolded during the violence of 2007, sleepy little towns are waking up, literally. I see ‘mandazi’ dough being kneaded, shops being opened, motorbikes being serviced and kids in uniform and big bags leaving for school with milk bottles. My neighbor tells me the milk is for sale, the kids take them to the creamery trucks that wait at bus stops that are yet to fill up, it’s that early.
The scenery outside is captivating, its sad my battery is now dead, and I can’t take pictures. The tea plantations in Nandi give way to the sugar plantations of Lurambi, and I can tell we are almost in Kakamega, it is now early morning, and most people in the bus are now waking up, stretching. Humphrey is asleep, and all I am looking forward to is a bed when we get to his home. Its now seven hours since we left Nairobi. The bus is moving faster now, like the driver is also tired and can’t wait to get some rest. We get to our stop twenty minutes later. I wish my neighbour a safe rest of the journey, my legs are numb, and the sight of plenty of motorbikes at the stop, means that we will not have to walk a lot. I heave an audible sigh of relief, Humphrey laughs. I smile. Its nice to see him cheer up.
The homestead is packed with people of all ages, from toddlers to grannies, the hum stops when our motorcycles drives in, lots of people mob Humphrey, and I stand there with my bag, a few kids troop to where I am and look at me suspiciously. I wave, they are too timid to wave back. I pay for the ride, forty shillings. We greet everyone in the compound, literally everyone, we even disrupt the gravediggers just to say hello. Almost all of them are in vests, but all of them have a cigarette, or a remainder of one, stuck behind their ear. I wonder why someone doing such a strenuous job would want to smoke. Humphrey leads me to a room, I collapse on the bed, I don’t even hear the door being closed.
I wake up at dusk, I can hear crickets chirping, I wake up and take a cold shower, my muscles are still sore. I join Humphreys little cousins at a hut inside the compound, where our stories of tall buildings and lots of people fascinate them. They tell me about school, and girls, and soccer. A lady brings food, and we dig in, the ugali is steaming, and the chicken, I am told, was cooked just for me. As we wash our hands, music streams in, slow rhumba music. Later on in the night, it will progress to faster, louder Luhyia songs, but I’ll be too sleepy to hear it.
The next morning sees breakfast served at six, a lady wakes us up at six thirty, warm mandazis and some rich tea, I am especially hungry and I wolf down my portion. I am washing my face when Humphrey tells me we need to go buy foodstuffs at the shopping centre. As we walk out, a motorcycle rider offers us a ride, I politely decline, I want to walk around and see the farmland. The number of women and small children on the farms is shocking, I almost ask why there are no men on the shamba’s, but the constant roar of a motorcycle engine, commonly known as bodaboda, tells me all I need to know. Most men in the village have invested in bodabodas, and the influx has seen too many riders, and not enough passengers. The women spend the day cooking, washing, farming, the men who would be the passengers as they spend a lot of time talking politics at the local market, either own one, or know a friend who does, meaning there are few, if any, customers for the riders.
We walk back, I am now carrying my shoes in my hands, I like the feeling of my bare feet against the wet soil. It rains constantly here, so there is a lot of greenery. I am told I might get a jigger if I don’t wear my shoes, but I still decide to walk bare feet. We get home. The grave is done, and the mood is now more sombre than ever. I am shown a bull that will be slaughtered tomorrow, the day of the burial. There is a tent, where the coffin will be kept, the procession arrives today, from Mombasa, the whole neighborhood is tense, you can read the sadness even from the eyes of the little children. I try to play ball with Nandwa, Humphrey’s teenage cousin, but even he can tell something is wrong. We sit under a tree, and he falls asleep, due to the high number of guests, he has had to give up his bed, and now he is sleepy. I almost fall asleep myself; the sweltering heat from the afternoon sun is making me drowsy.
The first wails are unmistakable, shrill, piercing screams that prompt even more wails. The procession is here. Footsteps as everyone rushes to the compound, we start walking downhill to the compound, the wails from the women, the stony expressions from the men and the hooting from the tens of bodabodas scare the little babies, who add to the cacophony of noises in the homestead. The animals too are restless; perhaps knowing a couple of them will be slaughtered today. Two women collapse as the coffin is brought into the tent. Even the young children are now crying, possibly from confusion, than sorrow. A voice from the speakers tells people to congregate at the tent, and long after the compound is full, people are still streaming in. Young men hang precariously from trees, all in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the oncoming procession.
The coffin is opened, people line up for viewing. Nandwa is scared to take a look, so we sit down and talk, I ask him what he wants to become when he is my age, he smiles, and says he wants to own a bodaboda, I ask him why not a doctor, or lawyer, or politician, he says his dad operates one, and he idolizes him, so he’ll become one as well. I ask about school, he isn’t as interested. Humphrey will me later that Nandwas father is not able to afford school, seven kids on bodaboda earnings is a challenge. If Nandwa ever owns a motorcycle, it may not be a young teen living his dream, it may be a young father fending for his young family, given that he might marry before his twentieth birthday as is the norm. A few more women have fainted and our shade under the tree is needed. We walk away.
I find Humphrey sprawled on the bed, he looks up as we enter the room, he is clearly stressed. He explains his absence at the viewing as a combination of fatigue, and evading the many relatives who keep asking him for money. He asks angrily why someone owning a motorbike would ask for money for sugar, I almost explain why, then I realize that I’ll make Nandwa’s dad look bad. My toe gets itchy. I wear my shoes and go down to the river to take photos. We only have a day left and I want to take memories back home. At the river, a bike is being washed, its left handlebar has come off, and the rider is bleeding slightly on his elbow and has a cut on his lower lip, I take pictures of Maragoli. The man stops washing, looks at the bike and breaks down, we silently wash our shoes in the flowing water, the only noises coming from the rider’s occasional sobs.
As we walk back, Nandwa tells me the rider is ‘finished’, I ask why. He says the rider probably had an accident and his business is now ‘dead’, he doesn’t have the necessary permits and licences, so he can’t report the accident to the cops, and without a filled police report, he can’t claim insurance. I ask about savings, and the look the early teen gives me tells me the rider lives from hand to mouth. We take a longer route back home, to avoid the crowds at the homestead, and he tells me most of the riders didn’t attend driving schools, they learnt from friends, who learnt from friends. One whole transport system based on friendship, and unreported accidents. He says he knows a little about driving one himself, but his father won’t let him. That’s the only thing he dislikes about his old man. That, and his drinking problem.
We wake up early the next day, as the bus needs to leave for Mombasa, almost eighteen hours from here. I am fatigued, and although the wails are louder today, I can hardly hear them. Humphrey has his picture taken in front of the casket, with the same look he had on the bus the day we came. Distant and indifferent. The hymns are sung, sermons are given, eulogies are read out, more women faint. Some of the crowd still looks at me with strange faces. It’s a tightly-knit community this one, and strangers are looked upon with suspicion. The grave is filled up fast, heaps of soil ensuring the earth swallows up the crimson casket. Food is served. Plenty of it. People seem to have forgotten it’s a funeral, there is a lot of chatter. No more wails. I see the rider who was washing his mangled bike. He is sitted away from the crowd. He is drinking something out of a plastic cup, I presume its ‘changaa’, a local brew, he looks forlorn. He shakes his head from time to time. He looks like he could do with a change of clothes, and a hero. Not Superman. Or Batman. Hero is a brand of bikes, and he looks like he could do with a new one.
The next morning, We leave for Nairobi. Nandwa is sad we are leaving. He had come to like the games on my phone. I promise to call once I get home, but even he knows I’ll most likely forget. As we take a bike to Chavakali, where our bus for Nairobi is, I look at the rider, his face is scarred, and from his breath, I can tell he has taken a few glasses of changaa. I ask Humphrey if we can walk, he grudgingly agrees. I take off my shoes, I can feel the jigger in my toe. That’s the least of my worries though, I have to get to Nairobi and tell Jethro not to buy a bike. Do anything, but not buy a bike.