I always had this hunch that fate would one day nudge me and send me to an exotic place. One day it did that and told me that I had to go to Wajir. So I woke up and told my people: I love you but I have to go. It’s only by going that I can come back and see you with different eyes. Then I traveled to Wajir, stayed a little bit, and respected the place.
I faced some resistance. Those that have never ventured outside their homes are always the first to warn you against going to Northern Kenya. It’s the same in life-those that have never ventured on a journey are always the ones vehemently warning you against undertaking it.
Then, one morning, with the resolute determination of a lioness with ten mouths to feed, I packed my things and left –for Wajir.
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The grueling 700km 12-hour bus journey to Wajir begins with a good meal. It happens that all the Northern Kenya bound buses are based in Eastleigh-that delightfully chaotic suburb of Nairobi. You can’t sit in an Eastleigh hotel without bumping into a retired Kismayu pirate who came to launder his money here.But they don’t curse or drunkenly sing ‘fifteen men on a dead man’s chest and a bottle of rum’. They are gentle pirates who smile genuinely as they tell you ‘waria hii suit ni genuine kutoka Turkey’. Eastleigh is also never short of majestic men with beards dyed the colour of Royco thumbing prayer beads-as they swing their bakoras with majestic grandeur. Real men.
The bus conductor is a lanky fellow who keeps brushing his shiny teeth with a bush toothbrush. Karibu mageni.He tells me cheerfully as he ushers me into the bus. It’s only in Eastleigh that you are ushered into a bus that way.
Tutafika lini? I ask him.
Kesho inshallah. He answers back.
What he is implying is that the journey to Wajir is an overnight ordeal that needs Allah for guidance. I settle in my seat in the scented bus and watch Eastleigh chaos ebb like a sea getting calm for the night. A young man who seemingly has never gone to Wajir is saying kwaheri to his young family. His young wife and their two kids hug the man so tight-you could think he is going to Pluto. Goodbyes are such sweet sorrows.
My seatmate is a Mzee called Galgalo who speaks two Swahili words, ten Somali words aided with wild gesticulations and assumes that I get what he is saying. But we get along well he is such a jovial soul despite the language barrier. Galgalo hangs his bakora in the seat in front of him, spreads his miraa on his laps, and starts chewing noisily. I take out an old black book-Langston Hughes Complete Poetry Anthology-and get engrossed in the Harlem Poetry therein. At Pangani he offers me some miraa twigs which I refuse politely. At Thika Mzee Galgalo turns to me and says:
Ndio abo. Abo is Somali for father.
Kukuyu mazuri sana-watu ya biashara kama waria.
And so we have our little chit-chat with Mzee Galgalo in broken Swahili mixed with Somali. Rules of language dictate that when you are talking with someone who doesn’t understand a language well, you downsize yours. They don’t teach that in school.
We are now at Kithyoko .Mzee Galgalo commands the conductor to stop the bus so that he can restock on muguka. You got to respect a man who commanders a whole bus to stop so that he can feed his cravings. When he comes back he hands me a soda and apologizes genuinely.
Bole sana-mimi naona nasumbua wewe.
Hujasubua mimi. I answer him.
Lakini mimi naona wewe ni mtu wa dini kabisa! He says.
Kwa nini? I ask him.
Kila wakati mimi naona wewe nasoma Biblia.
Do I tell him that I am reading one of Langston Hughes erotic poems?
We get to Matuu and its magharib prayer time. The conductor whose mouth is green with muguka shouts salah! The bus is parked by the roadside. These buses have unwritten rules-the men go to one side while the ladies go to the other side. The men remove their shoes, perform their ablutions, and face Mecca for their prayers.
Shortly, we get to Mwingi. Women wave at us from the roadside with mangoes, oranges and zeituni (guavas). If you have never eaten Mwingi guavas, then you are yet to taste life. Two women approach my seat with basket of fruits. Before I can protest that I don’t have money, a fat lady has already tossed an equally fat guava my way and told me:
‘Baba,oja hio usikie utamu wake’.
Man! Where else does one get to be enticed such way by women apart from Ukambani? I buy two kilos of guavas which is more than I can munch. That woman has Ph.D. in marketing.
The conductor has announced a 20-minute super break. The driver and his squad-those noisy fellows who sit atop the engine cabin-restock on fresh miraa . Northern Kenya buses are propelled by diesel and miraa .To pass an interview as a driver of one of these buses, one is assessed by the number of kilos of miraa he can chew in a day.
After snacking we board the bus and it starts flying –the dose of miraa the driver took at Mwingi is unadulterated and KEBS certified. A lady who took too many roadside samosas starts to puke through the window. A man who took too much drink is at the door holding the conductor by his neck-commanding him to stop the bus or he does it right there. The bus stops and almost everybody alights and the whole world becomes a urinal.
Up there in the heavens, there is a full moon blazing on us like a golden lozenge. A lovely zephyr caresses my skin-Ukambani always has this sultry weather. In a short while, we come to Ukasi-the town that marks the end of Ukambani as we head to Garissa.I offer Mzee Galgalo the guavas. He squints at them and selects the smallest ones. Thus I ask him why he is opting for the small ones.
We bado jua,kitu ndogo ndio tamu. The smaller it is, the sweeter it is.
With a mischievous glint in his eyes,Mzee Galgalo elaborates that camel meat is good, but goat meat is better, chicken is even better than the rest. The smaller the better. A bus journey is a life lesson.
He then gets fidgety then disappears into the dark aisle. Shortly he comes back with groundnuts in his hands. He tells me that he had gone to borrow groundnuts from people seated in seat number 55 and we are in seat 13.
Kwa nini huwezi omba kwa huyo jirani wako hapo? I ask him.
Huyu habana mtu ya mlango yangu! He is not from my sub-clan. You see, a Somali man will travel a mile to borrow single grain of njugu from his clansmen. He then offers me njugu which I select the big ones.
Wewe bado elewa,ikiwa kubwa utamu kidogo.Hata kwa maisha iko namna hio!
He reminds me of his previous lesson with a naughty wink. We laugh until he disappears to the back again to chat with watu ya mlango yake.We reach a place called Abakore where the road branches of from the city of thorns they call Dadaab and heads towards Habaswein-the town of many winds.Ikiwa ndogo,utamu mingi .Mzee Galgalo whispers into my ears. Then he alights out of the bus, swinging his bakora back and forth as he becomes one with the night.
A man with four goats stops the bus. The bleating goats are ushered into the bus undercarriage. The man enters the bus with his son, a young chap of about ten. The young chap fondly holds a white kid goat in his lap throughout the journey. Down the road, four lanky young men board the bus. Their kikos can hardly hide the Somali hunting knives in their hips. They are turbaned –making them look like knight Templars headed for some secret nocturnal crusade in some forgotten hamlet.
Since the bus is full, they agree to ride at the top. So they go up there, arrange their miraa in the bus top carrier and start chewing under the soft moonlight .Then they start complaining that the bus is going too fast and they can’t eat their miraa in peace. The bus conductor tells them to buy a bus of their own for chewing miraa in.
Everything is now silent apart from the chug-chug-chug of the bus wheels and the chomp-chomp-chomp of the miraa chewers. How the driver navigates the night with no Google maps beats sense. One mad turn into a road less traveled and you find yourself headed to Kismayu which is nearer to Wajir than Nairobi. The driver at times gets lost but he does so in the right direction. A bus journey is a metaphor for life: sometimes we get lost in the right direction. Other times in the wrong direction never, to recover again.
We are now at Habaswein-the place with a buxom lady called Raha who cooks killer chapos and goat meat. Habaswein is not in any map; true places never are. Just like that place you had your first kiss. Or that screechy bed you lost your innocence: a glorious experience that you have always longed to relive. We all have such a place that we want to go back to only that when you finally get there, we realize it’s our youth that we have been missing. But I digress.
The Somali have a breakfast called KK that incorporates chapatis, vegetables, goat soup, and a few pieces of goat meat. You eat this for two weeks and your forehead shines like an oil Sheikh’s. In Raha’s kitchen, the recipe for KK includes a helping of a spoonful of sugar. It’s only in Northern Kenya that sugar is added to food including ugali. This is no different from Kikuyus adding water to fish. All communities have their gastronomical goofs.
It’s now morning and the sun is rising beautifully from Kismayu-the desert has rough a beauty of its own. You see, there are places you go to and love. Others you go to and hate. But when you go to Wajir, you respect the place, the people’s resilience, and their sense of pride. People who walk with heads held high and speak in loud voices and eat noisily since they haven’t been silenced by silly city etiquettes that demand we cannot eat by hands or slurp tea lovingly. A free people who set their own standards of etiquette.
We have now traveled for so long that I think that since the world is round, we might be at the same place we started. We come to the barrier they erect just before you enter Wajir. An AP officer is sleeping on mat under a tree-his Kalashnikov acting as his pillow.The bus conductor gets out and kicks barrier out of the way.
Thirteen hours later the bus in which we have been travelling in like beings in space ship hurtling to some celestial reckoning arrives in Wajir. Kids are rushing to school and shepherds are taking their flocks to the pastures. Market women are spreading watermelons and greens by the roadside. We are tired but not worn out. This is what Vasco da Gama must have felt after rounding the Cape and landing at Malindi. But we aren’t the same way we started -our lessons come from the journey, not the destination. We may have been made weak by time and fate, but still we are strong-
-to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
Wajir feels exotic. It’s only in Northern Kenya that you travel to set foot in your country for the first time. Travelling within other parts of Kenya is a trip, but travelling to Wajir is an odyssey. Why? It is said that every 100 feet the world changes. The changes in 700km we have travelled are thus enormous.
The Muslims say bismillahi and alight from the bus. The Christians do the sign of the cross and disappear into the streets of Wajir.
The odyssey is finally over; another has just began.