My village has very colourful characters. Unsung people who took part in unsung events in unsung times. One such person is Bruno Macharia-a retired bus tout from back in the day.
The term retired bus tout is a misnomer. Once a tout, always a tout. In spite of his age, Bruno still retains the rough edges of a tout. You can see it in his gait which says he has seen more brawls than a WWF wrestler. He walks with his fists almost closed-as if he expects a fight to break out anytime. He is like the old dancer is known by the tremble of his shoulders.
The other day, Bruno popped into our compound and made himself comfortable on a folding chair under the ancient avocado tree. He was the guest of my uncle-the one who is always sharpening a sharp panga.But I made him my guest too-and placed beside him an offer he could not refuse-some fiery single malt which had remained over from the previous day. By and by, we started reminiscing about the old days.
You remember that day in 1982 when we drove the bus from Nairobi to Mombasa in under 3 hours? Bruno asked my uncle. He has this tarty tangled hair with a look of anarchy. Years of swinging from bus doors made his hair tangled for life-and no comb could undo that.
My antennae for a good story went up. My uncle stuck his panga upright into the wet loam, poured himself two quarts of the drink and hopped into the bus story too.
The year was 1982.For all of you millennials, ‘82 is a long long time ago. They hadn’t discovered pizza then so folks used to make do with Elliot’s bread. Kenya by then was ruled by a tough mzae called Moi who walked around with a swanky ivory knobkerrie (you guys call it mathiokore in street speak).Kenya then had only one TV station that opened at noon and closed after lights out at midnight so that folks could make babies instead of watch Afrosinema. In short, those were very boring times.
But not so for my relative Bruno and his crew. Bruno by then was a debonair city dandy in a silk shirt, bell bottoms and sideburns thick enough to hide an Infinix phone. His Afro was wide enough to cause an eclipse. And he did cause eclipses in many a girl’s heart-if the number of young people in the village now in their 20s who look like him are anything to go by. But I won’t delve there-this post isn’t about Bruno’s glorious endings. Huh!
Bruno worked as a tout for Gathanga Bus Company. All day, he was holed in the loaf shaped bus collecting coins from passengers. By then Michuki was a dashing middle aged man at the helm of KCB and he had not come up with those famous rules that streamlined the matatu industry. Thus, the transport industry was chaos itself.
The bus crew consisted one driver and three touts. Real men who had to leave the top three buttons of their silk shirts open to cool their chests which throbbed with real testesterone.The drivers’ major task was to find out how fast his loaf shaped Leyland bus could go without killing all on board. He was the Knight Templar of the road-always hurtling down some dusty village road as if headed to a mandatory crusade. By then they hadn’t started growing muguka in Embu-so bus crews weren’t judged by how many kilos of muguka they could munch in day. They were judged by their sheer brawn-and daredevilry. And Bruno had tonnes of that. Still has.
Likewise, each of the three touts had very specific roles. One was a fellow who was always perched on the bus roof top like a bird of carrion. In his hands was lethal whip whose work to discipline other touts when they arrived at any bus stage. The second one was always at the door-cajoling travellers to get in to the bus. Most of the time, half of his body was flying in the air-like the flag of a rebellious country that wanted to secede from the mainland. The third and the most important tout was the one inside the bus. His work was to collect coins-and sometimes buttons-that the villagers paid him with.
After he was done with his job, he was entitled to lighting up a pungent Nyota ciggie right within the bus. Sometimes the travellers would gather courage to tell him to put the darn thing of. But going by his red eyes and his face that looked like a rough map to every dirty sheeben in the city, they decided it was better to withstand the cigarette smoke that his jabs. Bruno was such a tout.
Now, in 1982, Kenya had a vibrant football scene.Instead of English Premier League, folks followed African Cup Qualifiers religiously. Of course they didn’t do this over flat screens in some swanky sports bar-but over hissing radios in some busaa or kaluvu dens. But all in all, they still enjoyed the beautiful game.
After telling the story so far, Bruno peered into the horizon, his eyes ringed with nostalgia. Then he took a swig from his glass to summon more muses before wiping his silver beard with the back of his hand. Then he went on with the story.
A team called Mufulira Wanderers from Zambia had come to play AFC Leopards for a critical qualifier match. AFC Leopards were at the top of the rankings in Africa then while Mufulira Wanderers was a nondescript team from a nondescript country.AFC Leopards were sure they would thrash them like burukenge.
The night before the match, the teams’ management met in Nairobi to celebrate their imminent victory over the little known team from Zambia. We had no Mututho laws then and clubs used to operate round the clock. The party raged on into the night like a savannah fire at Club Hole in the Wall. Bob Marley shouted ‘Africans a liberate Zimbabwe’ from the speakers. With such great music, the club management raved on till the small hours of the following day. Which was the day of the match.
Wafula the club manager had hardly slept for a few hours-or so he thought-when his bedside phone rang.
Wafula,wapi tikiti ya ndege ya wachezaji?
The team was to fly to Mombasa that morning to play Mufulira Wanderers FC at 3 pm.It was now 10 am and the team was still in Nairobi since he had forgotten to book flight for them to Mombasa.
At that juncture, my uncle ran his panga sharply over the sharpening stone. His way of showing excitement. Bruno continued on with the story.
By then, we had no SGR. Or these Jambojet or Jetways airlines which hop across our skies daily. We only had Kenya Airways which had scheduled flights to Mombasa. You miss a flight today, you wait till next week. What to do?
At around eleven, Wafula went to Hamza shops for some cigarattes.As he tried to cool his frayed nerves with nicotine, he shared his predicament with a fellow smoker-a thin man with a high cheekbones and brown teeth. The man listened keenly as Wafula told him how desperately he wanted someone who could drive a football team from Nairobi to Mombasa within the next four hours.
We can do it in less than three hours. The smoker told him in a wheezy voice hardened by cheap liquor and smoke.
Who do you mean by ‘we’? Wafula asked.
Gathanga Bus Services. That’s our work.
The man with brown teeth answered back as he killed his cigarette with the sharp end of his tony red Travolta boots. Then he casually pointed to the bus revving at the bus stop. He was its driver. They had stopped for a smoke fix at Hamza bus stage.
When Wafula was convinced that the man could take the boys to Mombasa in time for the match, he went back to his house and put a call to his team captain:
Tell the boys to get ready. We meet at Machakos Bus Station in 20 minutes!
At noon, Wafula was doing roll call of the players. The footballers’ hearts sank when they learnt that they were to go to Mombasa by road in an ugly bus that looked like giant loaf.
Are you sure you can take us to Mombasa in four hours?
Wafula once again asked the driver.
We handle the difficult. The impossible takes us just a little longer. The bus owner who had just come in answered back. He had noted Wafula’s desperation and wanted to milk maximum profit from it.Thus he insisted that each passenger would pay bus fare equivalent to the cost of a flight to Mombasa. When the deal was sealed the bus owner promised the bus crew double pay that month if they hacked that job in time.
With that, at exactly twelve noon, the driver ascended to his throne and fired the bus. The door conductor removed the large boulders that used to be placed at the rear wheels to prevent the bus from drifting. Then he closed the door and slipped the keys into his boots. Then, like an angry metal dragon, Gathanga bus KUU 273 eased out of Machakos country bus station to go to Mombasa in under three hours in an epic battle between man, machine and time.
Shortly, the bus was hurtling down Mombasa road and the boys were impressed. At Mlolongo they started complaining that it was going too fast. The driver pointed a brutal finger at them and they kept quiet.
The bus hissed and whined like a wounded buffalo is it charged down that steep incline at Salama-gobbling the miles by the minute. Several of the football players wanted to take a leak at Emali-not because they had any pee, but to see if they could sneak out of the bus which was headed for a sure crash. The driver was smarter than them and ignored their many pleas to stop.
The boys then demanded to be dropped at Mtito wa Ndei.When Mtito came into sight, the driver double clutched then eased the bus into high gear .The bus lifted its nose then charged at the road ahead with the brutal force never seen on that road since the times of the Man Easters of Tsavo.
At around half past two, traffic police officers at Changamwe saw a bus that was hurtling towards them chaotically like a ship whose crew mutinied.
Mpishe aende zake! Shouted Abdalla the traffic boss. His hawk eyed juniors didn’t even pick the name of the bus due to its speed.
When the bus finally reared its belligerent chin at Mombasa stadium, aching and creaking like an ancient ship at sea, it was 3 hours flat since it had left Nairobi. And just in time for that crucial match between AFC Leopards and Mufulira Wanderers FC of Zambia. The welcome at the stadium was nothing but heroic.
When Bruno had given us enough time to absorb the depth of the story, I asked him:
Now, were you paid your double salary that month by your boss as he had promised?
No.Instead we were sacked instead. Bruno answered back.
Why? I pressed on with concern.
Because the bus’s engine knocked, never to wake up again. Bruno answered me with a forlon face, roughened by time, labour and worry.
Then he took one last swig of his drink-like one drinking to the thrills of his youth.