There were multiple reasons why I’d get home late, some more legit than others. For instance, there was this one weekday in 1998 when I got home at 11pm – soaking wet, tired, hungry, and so reluctant to be getting up at 5am the next morning to do it all over again! This was how El Nino came to be on everyone’s tongue.
This was an evening shared with about 120 other commuters on an old, rickety, route 111 Kenya Bus Service. It took us 3 hours to move from the terminal to Nyayo House, a distance of not more than 1 mile. It was pure torture. Body odors went beyond overpowering. Forget personal space; there was barely enough room for everyone who was determined to get home that night. About 10 men hang on from the back and front doors. Their limbs going numb after they’d clutched a foothold for over an hour. It was a miserable experience that succinctly epitomized how derelict Nairobi as a city had become. Our dysfunctional urban infrastructure was plainly visible.
And yet, it had begun so well. By now, about eight months into my high school career, I’d already become adept at swinging in and out of moving vehicles. It’s a skill that comes in handy in Nairobi’s CBD. You can skip out of a bus in motion and possibly save whatever bus fare the conductor was going to ask from you. But even if you had no qualms paying your ticket, the ability to drop off at will could save you a long walk. This particular evening, I’d skillfully caught a bus as it rounded the corner onto Ronald Ngala Avenue and just past a 1930s Sikh temple. The bus kept on towards Tom Mboya St, belching a cloud of diesel smoke as it passed a photographers’ studio where I often had my film processed and developed. We swung right at the Moi Avenue intersection, crawling through a vehicular bottleneck between two very busy bus stops: Ambassador to our right, and KenCom on our left.
As always, the bus stopped at KenCom to pick up passengers. No one got off since nobody takes a bus from KBS to Kencom, but clearly tons of people couldn’t be bothered to walk down to the terminus to catch a bus. For their laziness, they were rewarded with a vehicle that was nearly always full. More often than not, by the time route 111 got to KenCom, it was standing room only, and this evening was no exception. I had managed to get one of the last seating spaces left, at the back row, squeezing myself amongst six other passengers. At this point the Kenyan transit industry was still the Wild West, and proprietors could get away with anything. Buses were packed like one of those mtumba bales that came in from abroad with second hand clothing, tight and to the brim. After all the seats were occupied, passengers began filling the center aisle. As that got jam packed, too, passengers would begin sliding into the seats. By the time the bus was considered to be a full capacity, every seat had three passengers. Never mind that it was designed for two. There’d be two people seated, and one person standing in between them. Each time the bus lurched sideways, the standing passenger would bump his or her rump into the two people behind him. Forget privacy. That was a luxury reserved for the well-to-do who drove a personal vehicle.
The bus slowly made its way out and onto City-Hall Way. The first couple of rain drops sounded like we were sheltering underneath a mabati house. The splashes were fat and heavy: lazily landing on the roof as if to merely announce their presence, and the imminent arrival of a much bigger delegation. They were the liquid version of Kenya’s J J Kamotho and Cyrus Jirongo, sycophants who swept into dusty towns in rural Kenya to whip up enthusiasm for a Moi entourage, and attendant presidency, upon which everyone wished nothing but a quick demise. This was going to be a large gathering, as the dark, heavy and pregnant clouds had predicted all day. Our driver soon had to turn on his wipers. The sun-cracked rubber squeegeed its way across the wide glass, dutifully policing an earlier accumulation of dust. Water flowed down the sides of the bus; each braking sent a river down the front, and each acceleration a smaller stream down the back. The men hanging out the doors had given up looking brave. It was clear this was a deluge to rival all others. Ten minutes into our ride, as we all leaned left, to counter balance the vehicle’s right turn onto Parliament Road, the hanger-on’s had been transformed into a sorry bunch of bedraggled rats. There’s nothing cool about getting wet on your commute home; no come-back whatsoever when Mother Nature pisses all over your used suit, warping the already over-sized jacket into a bloated version of its former self. Newspapers, duly saved earlier that day to be shared with eager spouses later that evening, were damped onto the roadside. Soaked, and with their ink running, there was no one waiting to be lifted into the realms of middle class respectability by association with these ghostly markers of urbanity.
We painfully inched past the Holy Family Basilica on our right, glancing briefly to see if there was any salvation coming from that end. None. Even God had closed shop for the day and deserted Nairobi to its own sodden demise. It was now half past six. We’d boarded the bus an hour ago, and barely moved a kilometer since. Within the confines of nauseating body odor, someone made a comment about arriving home just in time for a quick shower tomorrow morning and the commute back to the office. We all privately digested this humor but furtively avoided eye contact. We’d obviously be home before dawn, we secretly insisted, but no one would publicly venture to predict when that would be.
We edged past the Intercontinental Hotel and Casino. Tonight, I wasn’t particularly concerned with what happened in its confines, as I did most evenings. I simply wanted to get home. Right onto Kaunda Street, and left on Koinange Street. We’d navigated three sides of the Basilica yet the main occupant was nowhere to be seen. Things were thick. The rain was now coming down in sheets. Visibility had dwindled to less than a 100 meters and our driver could barely navigate by following the brake lights in front of him. At least those private car occupants had space. We had to make do with less square footage than is allocated chickens on their way from up country to Nairobi – housed as they are in coops made of twigs and trussed up on the roof of a Mbukoni matatu. It was wet outside the bus, and wet inside from passenger sweat. We turned left on Kenyatta Avenue and the bus wheezed into the Posta bus stop. Sure the vehicle was full, but that was no reason why we couldn’t try to squeeze in one or two more commuters.
It was almost half past eight by the time we maneuvered past the Nyayo House round about. Uhuru Park had now transformed into a veritable rice paddy. Gone were the lunch time idlers who chewed on air burgers, unsuccessfully trying to quell the pangs in their bellies with faith rather than a meal. Gone, too, were the itinerant preachers who set up shop on the pavements, promising fire and brimstone to idolaters, adulterers, and murders, but not daring say squat about corrupt government officials. Speaking of bribe-fueled politics, even Moi’s commemorative statue in the middle of the park seemed extra heavy tonight. The water coming down from the heavens had soured its usually autocratic air even more.
This was a commute for the ages. We eventually got out of the CBD and made it to a stretch of Ngong Road that had less traffic. But none of it was smooth sailing. We stopped at Milimani Courts, Kenyatta Hospital, Mimosa, Adams Arcade, and eventually Dagoretti Corner. At each stop the commuters trying to board the bus outnumbered those alighting. Folks who normally walk to and fro work tried to stay dry by catching a ride home. Needless to say, many of them were dramatically unsuccessful on both fronts.
I didn’t get off that bus till about 10:30pm that evening. And I took the road less travelled. Normally I can disembark from a matatu at Em Bul Bul and walk to my house. But with the heavy rains all afternoon, I knew I’d be facing a raging river, in the dark. Under such conditions, it’s always advisable to take the Vet route. It’s basically the next stage after Bul Bul, a little longer, but much more convenient. By the time I knocked on our door at 11pm, I was fed up with commuting to school up to here! And yes, I could look forward to doing all over again tomorrow; lucky me.