She’s always seated at this very spot, probably one of the very few she can lay any claim to; the corner of one of the long metal benches at the bus stop, not too far from a large parking area for matatus. Her clothes are worn and her hair hasn’t seen the front end of a comb in a while. In her arms is a sleeping baby covered in a dirty shawl. Next to her, there’s a large bundle of what appears to be the entirety of her earthly possessions; a patterned, tattered khanga fashioned as a bag, stuffed with clothes and tied with a knot. There’s a paradoxical quality about her being; conspicuous yet also somewhat unnoticeable in the mass of human traffic that traverses a bus stop.
I’m waiting to board a matatu home when I first notice her. I’m seated on the benches opposite her. Between us is a short driveway that allows the matatus to come in and out of the bus stop. I’m frustrated about the long wait for one. My dying phone having lost its charm, I’m people watching. She doesn’t notice me staring. She has a faraway look in her eyes and a half smile. She looks as if she’s trying to remember a funny joke she once heard. A matatu comes by and I dash in, thoughts of her quickly replaced by my own cares.
I spot her again a few weeks later. This time I’m inside a matatu staring from the window just before we pull away. Who is she? Where is she from? Does she spend her days or nights here?
Another chilly evening in December after a long day at work and I’m waiting at the bus stop yet again. Nearly half an hour has gone by without any sign of a matatu. I’m not dressed warmly enough for the biting evening chill. There are so many of us at the bus stop waiting, eyes on phone screens, heads bobbing to music from headphones too large, deep in conversation, or pacing and looking around impatiently.
One matatu comes by and it’s a fight to get in. It’s always survival for the fittest during rush hour. I’m not too keen on elbowing people to find my way in today so I opt to wait for the next one. It takes a long while. There are a few false alarms where it seems like one’s coming and we rush to fight for space but it turns out to be a damaged vehicle in the midst of repairs and testing. “Ngojeni tu hapo, ingine inakuja.” Matatu proverb. I’m back at the benches and lo and behold, there she is, in her usual spot. Her earthly possessions sit stoically next to her on her right. I take a seat on the same bench, a small gap between us, my mind racing, trying to find things I could say to make conversation with her.
I don’t excel at small talk but today I’m winning. “Hizi matatu za hapa zinakaa sana.” She smiles and nods and makes an incomprehensible sound then continues to stare straight ahead. Today, the toddler is awake and scowling at me from her mother’s bosom. I smile at her. “Sasa baby. Sasa!” I’m trying too hard. My chitchat is running out. I’m losing. “Hata we unangoja matatu?” She shakes her head, smiles. I’m already chiding myself for this one. She is clearly not one of the commuters.
Another commuter rudely interrupts the wonderful conversation we’re about to have by sitting in the space between us. Thankfully, he leaves after a few minutes of unsuccessful small talk with me (and after trying to find out where I live). I’m left alone with the woman. What to say? I pretend to look around. I’m racking my tired brains trying to think of other things I could say to her but I keep drawing a blank. A matatu shows up and I get up to leave then turn to hand her a 100 shilling note from my pocket. “Nunulia baby maziwa.” She smiles and thanks me. On my way home I keep thinking of things I could have said to her, maybe words of encouragement. Or I could have prayed with her. Sigh. All these could-have-beens.
Today I’m waiting at the bus stop once again. She isn’t at her usual spot. In her place sit her earthly possessions silently marking her territory. On the ground below them is a faded Tuskys paper bag that I assume also belongs to her. It’s filled with what look like overripe mangoes, some with the insides spilling out of their spotted red-yellow skins. Was this her food for today? Where is she?
Matatu – minibuses used as public transport
Ngojeni tu hapo, ingine inakuja. – Wait here, another one is coming
Hizi matatu za hapa zinakaa sana. – The matatus from this route take a really long time to get here.
Sasa baby. Sasa! – Hello baby. Hello!
Hata we unangoja matatu? – Are you also waiting for a matatu?
Nunulia baby maziwa. – Buy the baby some milk.