I hear a small engine running outside, it’s time to walk away from my daughter again. Today she only cried a little.
I prefer to wear a jacket and the helmet when I get onto a boda, but today, with her sad waving from the gate at me. I just get on, or I try to, I lose my footing for a moment but recover quickly and tell him ‘Niko sawa’ trying to end the awkward. I’m ready, and we head off.
The edge of the road must have been straight once. Today, Patrick my boda guy, had to ride in a wavey line to avoid bouncing me up and down this Getathuru road. When I get off the bike a conclave of touts pounce around me. I hold my stance, they posture but don’t push or pull me. The odd thing, though not unusual, is that there are only two cars there, one bus or jav and one minivan; matatu. There are five red waist coated young men standing around me saying “Tao, tao” and gesturing their haste to me.
I get two hundred shillings out of my wallet, with it still inside my ankara print bag. Patrick doesn’t have change.
The shortest of the touts gestures for the note and is given it. He hands Patrick his fifty shillings and tells me he’ll give me the rest of the change later in the journey.
I give him a concerned look, and he assures me he will personally give it back to me. I walk swiftly towards the entrance of the jav. I grab the railing on the side of the door, swinging for a split second onto the first step. Then step up the rest of the stairs calmly. Leave no evidence.
There are many seats available. No window seat near the front, and I’m not feeling like too much time to spare for waiting, at the back, for people to get out when we get to town. I walk past two rows with men siting at the window and sit next to a young lady wearing a thin scarf like I am.
Here, I must explain something I have dubbed the center code. This is a code of conduct of personal space, in public transport in Nairobi. One should observe this code, or else you could be misunderstood for being inconsiderate, or a thief. There are naturally, people who are actually inconsiderate, and actually thieves, who may not mind being thought of as such, but if you are not one, here is how not to look like it. Keep everything you can as central as possible, especially your hands. The rule applies to bags, boxes, chicken and everything and anything else that you intend to leave the vehicle with. One, often complained about breakage of the center code is men’s habit of spreading their legs.
It puts a person in an awkward position when the man next to you does this. If you move, you risk giving up more of your own seat, if you don’t move, you are in danger of implying that his closeness is welcome. When it happens, you are placed in the position of gate keeper of your seat. You place your knee just so, warning not to take too much advantage, while not inviting further contact. Stone face? Check!
Finding a seat next to a young lady, is a score. They are the least likely people to invade space. Not today. My seat companion for the morning is spatially friendly. She casually places her forearm between our legs, seemingly unaffected by her breakage of the center code. I shift my legs as though to cross them and then return to my original position. Do I really have to gate keep today? Its not even rush hour.
I do know, that it is entirely possible that she is simply unaware of the code. Most people observe it inadvertently, never naming it but following it none the less. I’m not the one to judge social awkwardness harshly, having my own generous portion of social anxiety. The nagging thing is, the last time I allowed a full invasion of my boundaries, The guy was rummaging through my rucksack in the guise of helping me open a window he had asked me to open. I only discovered it because I was guarding my center area which he had momentarily obscured (accidentally on purpose) with his satchel.
She gets the hint, and puts her arm back to the center. I breath out a silent sigh of relief. Today is not my cheeriest of days. Usiniletee please.
I resolve not to make any indication of interest in her direction. She has a busy aura, a young one. I don’t feel like talking today either. I have an email to reply and a poem to read for my Jalada workshop. I don’t feel like being observant at all, and that was our homework. I dive into local contemporary blogs and face book statuses. Before I know it, we have reached and passed Parklands police station, but I only look up briefly as we pass under the Museum Hill overpass. Tunnels make me nervous, nauseous, and then thrilled to be out of them.
As we wind our way off globe cinema round about and up towards Koja stage, my companion brushes her hand against mine and I give her a direct warning look. She apologizes, blushing, (wah, sasa ni nini na huyu,) she is very young. I quickly look around me and reestablish where I am in case I start feeling dizzy, I mentally mark the nearest shops that have guards. I do not get dizzy. There are many stories of intoxicating vapors, that all they have to do is brush it onto you. It happened to a friends mum, they convinced her to empty out her bank account then take them home so they could load her car with her things before they drove off with it.
In that frame of mind, valuing my senses is when I noticed the radio was still playing a Gikuyu station. That’s a first. I got into the trailing end of a praise song. Almost all the traditional songs I know are praise songs. Next on, was a skit of an uncle trying to teach his nephew how to say a sentence. The nephew sounds very young, perhaps no older than two, and his efforts were commendable. However he could not quite wrap his tongue around the word uncle. He kept repeating “Anuko” much to the amusement of his uncle.
The radio was then switched off. I remember joking with a friend about how they always change the station in Westlands. The assumption being that if you are heading towards Kiambu, you would be used to hearing Gikuyu.
I ponder on the reasons why he would have left it on. Perhaps it’s that, on this trip, we did not pick up anyone at or after Westlands. There is only a little traffic today, the driver pushes the bus over the curb of the roundabout, rocking us jaggedly as he does so. He is going to park inside it, but there’s another one in front of us, so we are stuck, lopsidedly, with the buses bum pointing at the top of the nearest building.
I stand up and get into a one person line to get out. The tout blocks the doorway to do a look out for policemen, then swings off to give us way. Those who have time to, will wait for them to finish parking.
I walk swiftly between big and small buses, all shuffling into embarking order. Ducking under maroon sleeved gestures I get to the opposite end of the round about. I stand next to a young lady wearing a pink hijab, but she looks scared to cross the road. I spot a middle age man who looks like he has somewhere to go, and follow his pace across the road quickly, with him upstream of me in the traffic.
As soon as I step onto a curb I am faced by a boda guy riding up it, headed straight towards me, so I alter my path and cross another road onto the walkway of one of the oldest buildings in town. Deep grey solid stone walls, strong enough to withstand snow. How useful.
I weave around the plants that dot the sidewalk, sometimes walking along their stone edges.
I cross the road again, too far from the zebra crossing, but this one is completely empty when I do, Other people cross to my left, and to my right. We are all ceasing the clear road. In that moment, completely aware of our strength in numbers.
I chose the Givanji gardens walk way today. I really shouldn’t have. Last night being Friday, the partiers chose that fence to water with pee. I pass a city council cleaner, he is old, stooped, and picking up litter from this fence that I am holding my breath to get past. I want to stop and thank him for the job he’s doing. I don’t.
I pass a pastry fragrant pizza spot and see the Uchumi sign, when I round the corner. One foot forward, one foot forward, I’m almost there, I often rush myself like this when I’m headed somewhere.
On my way past Nakumat, I step around a sleeping street boy. He is fast asleep, almost convincing me that, that is a comfortable place to sleep.
His dusty faded clothes camouflage against the chipped pavement curb.
This is his street, truly his, and I am just a passer by.