MOMBASA BY 3

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.

BUMPER TO THE RESCUE

Men will always give swanky nicknames to their pets-be they dogs, cows or their beloved jalopies. Often they use fancy like names Natasha or Talia. Sometimes they have their daughters give the family car a name like Tiana borrowed from some Disney character.

Unknown to many women, cars aren’t given feminine names because they are cute. Its not even a homage to the role mothers played in nurturing famous car inventors like Henry Ford or Carl Benz of Ferdinand Porsche. Far from it. Cars are given female names because they are fussy and demanding. And expensive to maintain too.

 The unfortunate thing about cars is that they age and get rusty and start coughing enigmatically. Such that they no longer look like Natasha and your neighbours start calling them kang’othi.There is no equivalent English word for the Kikuyu word kang’othi. But in a few words, kang’othi refers to an ancient car that coughs like it has engine tuberculosis and rattles like it has chassis arthritis and smokes like it has carburetor bronchitis-all at the same time. When everybody starts calling your car kang’othi, even the local stray dogs avoid peeing on its tires-lest they catch some diseases from it. You can leave a kaquarter of sizzling tumbukiza on its bonnet and a starving flea-infested mongrel wouldn’t touch it.

 The winds of life have taken me many places. In my youth I found myself living in a place called Ting’ang’a-that shopping center that has never changed since 1955. Near my hosts lived a man called Njau who owned a kang’othi.You could say it was a prototype-Njau boasted that its seats were once warmed by Henry Ford’s American bum. The whole village called the car kang’othi  ga  tung’othi-the father of ancient cars but that didn’t prevent Njau from boasting to everybody about its prowess and pedigree.

 It was well known that no one touched Njau’s car. Not even his mechanic.Njau would have rather let you kiss his wife but not touch his car.Folklore had it that he once let his wife touch the steering wheel when the were courting, but it never happened again after they tied the knot at Ting’anga Catholic church. That was Njau and generally Kikuyu men for you.

Generally, Njau had nothing but choice superlatives for his car. There is this mzungu from Karen who gave me Ksh two hundred thousand for this car, but I refused. He would tell us-me and his two sons-as he ferried us to Nairobi every morning. But sometimes the car would refuse to crank and Njau would hurl unkind words to it. He would tinker with the faulty clutch, suck the carburetor lovingly with his mouth, bang bonnet then command the car thus:

Ruruma gwakare gaka!(Get cranking, you stupid thing!)

The car had ears and would splutter to life immediately it heard those words. You see, cars are made from earth and have water and electricity in them and thus soul. Cars too have a spirit and a name. Sometimes the car’s brakes would fail and Njau would shout to it and it would stop pap. Automobiles are unreliable and dangerous slaves. Sometimes they revolt and kill their masters, but not Njau.

One day, as we were coming from Kiambu town and climbing that steady hill towards Ndumberu, the car accelerator jammed when it was on the floor. The car chewed that steady climb like a 6,000cc turbocharged Bhuggati. For some minutes, we stared at death since there was no way of stopping it. Luckily, it run out of fuel just before Ndumberi Golf Club saving us from early death and an early date with Ol’ Peter. When it did so, Njau got out, lit a Nyota cigarette, looked at the car if he was seeing it for the first time, then chuckled:

Gaka gakware nikangiaturaga.This stupid thing almost killed us.

By the time he was done, we had already disappeared into the nearby coffee bushes,ready to walk home. We could not take another chance at death by boarding that metal trap when we had lived less than twenty years.

The next day, we were going to Nairobi and the car lost control as it negotiated a corner at Muthaiga. I always wondered how Njau did that corner  without killing us.In fact,anytime he negotiated that bend, I always treated it as attempted suicide when he was alone and attempted boycide when he was carrying his boys and me. When the car finally showed signs of slowing down,Njau shouted:

Rugama gakware gaka kana uturage! Stop you fool or kill all of us. The car opted to stop instead of committing mass murder.

Next, we were going to Githunguri town and as usual, Njau was boasting to my uncle about the unique abilities of his car:

My car knows its way home when I am drunk. He started with his usual clincher.

Ehe! Can it open the gate for you too? My uncle who had a disdain for alcohol asked him. The three of us boys rubbed our rough hands with glee. Njau had finally met his match.

 My home doesnt have  a gate since I don’t have enemies to hide from like you. Njau retorted back, his Adam apple going up and down agitatedly, like a small animal was trapped in there.But you could say there was an animal trapped in Njau’s body-if his fighting spirit was anything to go by.

Ok, can it open the door for you? My uncle pressed on. This was getting rougher than Smackdown-that wrestling show we never missed on Tuesdays at KBC TV.

I am married to an obedient wife. Njau shot back. My uncle assumed this faraway anguished look-like he was sitting on nails. The rest of the journey was carried with Njau whistling a naughty Kikuyu tune triumphantly and my uncle clutching his Bible with resignation-like a crusader returning from a lost campaign. That was the last time my uncle got a lift in that car.

As time went by, Njau’s car’s notoriety as a death trap became something of a legend. Cops no longer stopped it-you couldn’t be sure whether that thing would stop or plow into serikal.His friends evaded him to avoid getting a lift on it. Only his boys and I had to ride on it daily from Ting’ang’a to Nairobi and back. It’s inside acquired the smell of asphalt and grease and failed dreams-like an abandoned factory. It had no AC, but Njau told us stories to warm it during those cold Kiambu mornings.

Its hubcaps disappeared and since you couldn’t find hub cabs for a car manufactured by Henry Ford himself in 1934 in Grogan, Njau fashioned some for it.Its muffler came off and dragged under its carriage raising a racket loud enough to be heard by Henry Ford in heaven. No sweat, Njau fashioned a muffler for the car too. With each replacement of a part, the car slowly became Kenyan. Or to be precise, assuming that Njau won’t read this, a mongrel of a car.

Then one day, some young fellas told Njau that his car was so hideous that it scarred kids. They also added that the car was the cause of rain failure in that area, amongst other calamities. This was mean, but we concurred with those bold chaps.

The following weekend-which I recall is around that time Princess Diana funeral was running on TV-Njau took a hand brush, parked the car under an avocado tree, and started painting it. With passion and pain and panache, he wrote some mean words on the car’s rear bumper. From then on, nobody dared laughed at it. For on the rear bumper of the car,in bold red hue, he had posed a stinging question to anybody who dared laugh at his jalopy:

WINA GAKU TAKO?

My car maybe ancient, but do you have suchlike?

KIMENDE

There are no better times to travel than when one is a bachelor. You can take breakfast of roasted yams in Nkubu,lunch at Gwa Kibira chicken joint in Kutus and take supper of waru and carrots in the one goat township of Kanyenyaini.All without a pesky wife asking ‘uko wapi?’ every two minutes. Bachelorhood without travel is a wasted one. When I was a bachelor, I drifted from one town to the next, like a child’s lost balloon, inhaling the fragrances of small towns, drinking life to the dregs. When I was too broke, which was often, I read books which took me places where my meagre pay couldn’t.

You see, there is no book like travel. Travel widens horizons and opens up fountains of knowledge. Failing to travel is like living in a corner of a room, like a toad, in a house full of a thousand rooms.

Fate has a mind of its own. When it noticed that I was always travelling solo and enjoying the buffets of travel alone, it sent me a person to enjoy travel with. That’s how one fair lady waltzed into my life like a prima donna. As young girls tend to be, she was dreamy-eyed and had this outlandish ideas about travel.

 My favorite place is Seychelles;will you ever take me there? She asked me one day.

My favourite place is in your arms, I answered her back. My pockets may have been empty then but my brain wasn’t.

Which is the most beautiful place you ever visited? She asked me another day. I knew this was a trap-if I mentioned some exotic place, she would ask me to take her there.

Your mind. I told her. This was an honest answer.

My fair lady wanted to go to exotic places with dancing lights and endless sunsets. But trust me-there is no creative person than a bachelor with a fair lady to please.  If the place she wanted to go to had a movie set in there, I would buy that movie which  would teleport her there and quench her wanderlust. You see nothing that romanticizes a place better than a movie. When she wanted to go to Bahamas, I got her Casino Royale which was big then and has scenes from Bahamas. When she said she longed to feel the sand pebbles of Waikiki with her feet, I bought her Raiders of the Lost Ark which is set in Hawaii. When she said she wanted to go to a place which they had not yet shot a movie in, I wrote poems that took her there.

Then one morning, around that time we were having that silly  bananas and oranges referendum on the new Constitution, I told her I will take her to Kimende.

Where is that Kimende whareva? She asked.

Some place with rarified airs where plums fall from the sky all day.I quipped.

What’s in Kimende?  She asked with a shrug of her shoulders since by then rolling of eyes hadn’t gained currency among girls like it has now.

I want to take you to places people don’t go to and thus see things people don’t see.

So? She asked. I had to work harder. Dating a fair lady is no joke. They come with attitude the size of Mt.Kenya.

We can watch the Great Rift Valley turn golden at sunset at the Viewpoint.

Arafu?  When a lady asks you this, she is telling you are dumb and need to up your game. I did.

Arafu we cherish the music of the wind because musical notes blow in the air there like some golden dust.

She smiled. I was headed somewhere.

Wi na ma? (Oh really?)

God one. I swore, knowing too well I was lying.

Ok, take me there and promise we won’t stay. Game shot.

The following day I called my old pal Mwaura who lived in Naivasha and told him we meet up at Kimende the following Saturday. We had suffered under the same bell together in high school. We had shared the same room in campus and hadn’t met for 4 years after clearing campus. So the trip was more about us catching up and seeing how life was treating us and less about the fair lady drapped in my arms. It was also to get endorsement from a friend about her. But she didn’t know all these-all she knew was that we were going to a magical place where musical notes hung in the air like golden dust.

Kimende was one drab place then. Not that it has changed much. The only thing that differentiated a day from the next was the alternation of the mist.  There were folks sitting beside jikos eating waru snacks and folks selling leeks and carrots and potatoes by the bucket There were folks squinting  from quaint shops looking up the Nairobi Nakuru highway as if they were waiting for something big to happen which didn’t happen but which still they hoped will happen.Those folks are still there.Thats the thing about small towns.

How can one love such a cold windy place? Asked my fair lady when we landed in the cold town.

My fair lady, like Queen Getrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, did complain too much. She came from the plains where it was warm and flat. She expected Kimende to be some warm flat place too. We all carry a piece of where we come from to where we go.

If one can love this place, you can love anyone. I told her.

Travel teaches you about love. I pushed on. Shoulders shrug.

You see, there is someone who cannot leave this place because his heart is forever held by it, I waxed philosophical.

Why? The fair lady asked me.

Because they got fond memories buried in here.The place is the mecca of their childhood.

So we had our meeting with Mwaura in this quaint pub that looked like it had its last customer before the fall of Berlin Wall. Soon we were chatting happily about life like the long-lost buddies we were. Pubs are like churches-folks tend to unburden themselves and bare their souls. And if they offer accommodation people bare their bodies too but that’s not what brought us there that day.

I could imagine how humdrum life in Kimende can be-days hanging on to each other and joined to the next by some frosty cold. To compensate for the cold, the locals are warm and full of time old-time camaraderie. The shopkeepers smile to customers and give them avocados when they cannot get coins to return change. Or plums.

Why are these people giving us avocados? My fair lady asked me.

They are symbols of fertility. Wink. When she got the joke she giggled then shrugged her shoulders.

We had a long chat with Mwaura as the butcher – a cheery fellow called Mbugua-prepared some tumbukiza for us to ward of the cold. We reminisced about our days at Njiiri School and KU.Of course embellishing some parts. We talked about our campus days omitting the more scandalous parts. Campus life was one continous scandal.Then Mbugua served us with a big mountain of meat with an even bigger mountain of ugali.When we ate and didn’t belch to show the we had taken enough, he added us more meat till we belched in unison and couldn’t take any more meat.

I am beginning to like this small cold town with great meat. The fair lady said.

I never take you to places you won’t like.She giggled.

Afterwards I told her that it was getting late and we couldn’t get to the Viewpoint where music notes hung in the air like golden dust. This meant that we could come again and partake the yummy meat at that joint. We bade Mwaura goodbye and boarded a matatu to Nairobi.

We sat at the driver’s cabin since the other seats were close to the back where sacks of leeks and onions filled the area with unholy smell. The driver was an affable Mukorino guy with two missing front teeth which gave his Gikuyu a happy French lilt. When we started discussing how Kimende people are generous with meat and how exotic it tastes, he interjected.

Whith buthery were you eating meat at?

‘Ponda Raha Bar and Butchery .The problem with Central Kenya is that bars and butcheries have names that can make you lose appetite for life.

Hio ni nyama ya funda direct .He said without  as much as looking at us, his eyes squinting into the mist ahead.Akorinos don’t lies we had been eaten donkey meat.2kg of it all.

My bowels opened up. I puked all the way such that by the time we came to Kangemi, I had puked out my liver. The heart came out at Westlands–together with the pulmonary arteries responsible for loving.Lawd! I hated Kimende-how could I even love when the parts of my heart responsible for loving had come out? Finally, at Khoja stage, I puked out the aorta and the parts responsible for hating. Now, I could now neither love nor hate. The only thing vital thing that remained in me was the soul which I couldn’t puke out since it’s indestructible.Or maybe I didn’t have one.

The following day Mwaura called to ask whether we go home safe .I narrated to him how I had vomited out almost all my vital organs and soiled the fair lady’s white dress. Which she had pointed out that I hadn’t bought.

Is the fair lady still with you? He asked me.

Yes. She is here with me making some pancakes to nurse me.

Mundu, get some wazees, send them to her folks to report that you are taking her as a wife.

I did that the following week.

The fair lady who withstood my puking from Kimende to Khoja stage is making pancakes for me as I write this.

She is my wife.