February 1st 2004 was the battle of the titans. In Nairobi, the situation was as critical as elsewhere in the country. There were no belching double cab minibuses on the industrial area route nor were there the usual array of flashy SouthB ‘manyangas’. Like others headed off home after a hard day’s toil, I waited in line for the single public vehicle plying the route. After walking all the way from the office near Arboretum to the Sunbeam terminus, I was dusty, tired and discomfited by the sticky January heat that persisted all day long. To make matters worse, it was one of ‘those’ days where the boss had been indoors all day and I had missed the lunchtime fare at Oti’s Kiosk manning the phones. Who knew that the beginning of the month could be so busy?
Minister Michuki had put his foot down. With the lack of matatus, it seemed that we would have to ‘foot’ home too. The directive to bring order into the matatu mayhem had come into effect. Naturally, the matatu operators had been resistant to fitting the seatbelts and speed governors and none dared to venture out for fear of arrest and impoundment. So we waited in neatly looping lines from five p.m then five thirty. For the first time I knew none other at the bus stop. I figured my youth and speed would get me into the vehicle before the others ahead of me, but the burly turbaned self-appointed prefect of the line glared at me as if he could read my mind. The idea died there.
All the cars that stopped asking if people wanted a lift home soon sped away filled with commuters. All traffic laws were flouted as people thought of ways to get home. I thought of Kimani, my workmate who lived beyond Kayole, whose three-hour commute each way was long enough without the delay. What would he do? If I was stranded, he might as well have rented quarters in Mombassa. We waited and waited. How were we going to get home?
I had a curfew to think of. The freedom to work was controlled by the insecurity spreading in Nairobi. I could not afford to be home after seven p.m. Too many muggings, beatings and worse, rapes had happened to those women unfortunate enough to meet with the thugs who lurked beyond the sunset. I overheard one woman click her heel walking toward the Railway Posta junction. Another one followed her. I found myself hurrying up to catch up with them despite our unfamiliarity. By the time we reached the railway bridge, we were thick as thieves, discussing the politics of Nairobi as we raised more dust.
Three neighbours who lived near each other who had never met; Mama Wambui, who ran her own Exhibition stall, myself and Julia, a ‘colle’ professional student, who had taken evening classes until this evening, when she had hoped to get home in time to catch ‘Neighbours’. I already felt those blisters on my insole. There was no doubt in my mind that I was possibly the most tired amongst us, but said nothing. How would I communicate to this mother of three and fulltime student employee that I wanted to rest since I was tired? Besides, it was flattering to be called the young energetic one. I had to keep up appearances at least to save some face for the ‘youth of today’.
These noble thoughts kept me occupied until Car and General roundabout, where the traffic had locked solid. I had all but raised my hands in exhaustion while my new friends regaled me with stories about Mariakani in the old days. At least we were not alone. We were a steady throng of workers headed to pots and pans, children and backyard garden ‘sukuma wiki’ harvests. Truly, the day when Kenya walked, Mariakani united.