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Friday, August 22, 2008

Mzungu riding matatus

Colors muted and blended together. Shapes softened, losing their distinct edges. As afternoon faded into evening low, grey clouds closed in. The black shapes of a host of birds traced lazy circles in the darkening sky. In other settings these events would have been little cause for alarm. However, for an mzungu waiting for a matatu at the Nairobi bus station they set quite an ominous mood.
Wazungu aren't generally known to make use of the cheap public transportation offered by matatus. This was my second week of riding the matatu to work and I had yet to have a single other white person in a van with me (aside from my wife). My use of matatus was based on two factors: I figured that what was good for a black Kenyan should be good enough for me and I really didn't have any other option for getting to the office of the ministry I work for. In doing this I brushed off the statements from many white people about how dangerous it can be to ride matatus. Even some of my black Kenyan friends had seemed a bit worried for me when I mentioned that my route to work would entail getting dropped off and picked up at the bus station. The way I figured, sure it might have some dangers, but my Kenyan friends do it. Plus, nothing is going to happen to me in the daylight.
Of course, now it was evening, rapidly progressing into night. This was a different story. On previous commutes I had little trouble. I took a bus from my office to the city center. From there I wound my way through the bustling, narrow streets to the bus station and got on the 100 or 120 matatu up Kiambu road. Except today when I had entered the dirty square that serves as bus station there were no matatus for my route there.
Now, Kenyan public transport doesn't work like it does in Western countries. There is no posted bus schedule or route numbers. Everyone in Nairobi just knows what number they need to take to get where they need to go. And the matatus don't even pretend to be in a certain place at a given time. There is no "I'm going to catch the 8:10 matatu into town." Matatus go when they have a paying passenger in every seat (as well as maybe a few more jammed in). Meeting your time schedule is not the matatu operators concern. Their concern is maximizing their profits.
When I arrived at the bus station there was a line of about 20 people waiting in the place where my route number picked people up. So I was fairly confident matatus would soon show up to pick up all those paying customers. After half an hour of waiting in the line I was beginning to wonder. The woman next to me explained in response to my queries that this type of wait was a bit unusual, but that it did happen from time to time. I thought I discerned from her half Swahili-half English explanation that the matatu drivers did sometimes decide not to bother coming all the way to the bus station. On these occasions you had to walk to wherever they were deciding to turn around. I thought about asking where this other pick-up point might be, but when I had asked Kenyans for directions on previous occasions they assumed I knew a lot more about the surroundings and context than I actually did resulting in directions of nebulous worth. Plus, the woman wasn't headed for wherever this other pick-up point was, so I opted to stay put and wait.
As my wait stretched from a half hour to an hour I was beginning to wonder. Several people in front of me in line had gotten fed up and wandered off. Maybe to the rumored other pick-up point. I again considered striking out in search of it. But then I thought, as soon as I step out of line a matatu will show up and I will have lost my place. Other Kenyans were waiting here, and plus, this was where they were supposed to come.
Twilight was deepening as my wait approached the hour and a half mark. The square which had been a bee hive of activity throughout my wait was slowly emptying. As I stood in the queue hundreds of people swirled around me and not one of them was white. I stood as the lone mzungu in the square. At this point I was seriously considering action plans should no matatu show up. I had already exchanged several text messages with Lara. She was waiting anxiously at home with dinner ready. I had felt pretty secure during the day time. But if you listened to a lot of white folks Nairobi is like some kind of horror movie where if you are out after dark the hordes of monsters will descend upon you. According to the testimony of even my most street-wise Kenyan friends this wasn't the best place to be at night regardless of the color of your skin. The fact that my skin is white would further distinguish me as a target. I only had a cheap mobile phone and about a thousand shillings (fifteen dollars) with me, but that wouldn't matter to would be muggers.
My plan was set. If a matatu didn't show up in the next five minutes I was going to call Lara and have her ask our neighbor Nate to come to pick me up. In the mean time I would hightail it north and west as quickly as I could walk. Just then a van lurched to a halt in front of me. I was trying to figure out if it was the right route when the line behind me started surging around me to the sliding door on the other side of the van. So much for the orderly queue. I realized that if I didn't move I would be left in the dark. Three passengers were trying to get off the matatu, but couldn't make their way through the surging crowd. Two women in business suits tried to get seats together but were thrust apart. I boxed out the throng behind me long enough to let the disembarking passengers squeeze out. My courtesy almost cost me my seat. I was just able to wriggle through and get one of the last seats. Those unable to get on muttered angrily under their breaths and returned to the queue.
It took well over an hour to drive the six or seven miles to the stop near our apartment. My commute which had begun around 4:30 ended after 8. My worried wife welcomed me home with a hug a little longer and tighter than usual and a hot meal. For a while during this epic commute I started feeling sorry for myself. However, then I started to think about the myriad of Kenyans who have that kind of day on a regular basis. There are thousands who are subjected to the clogged traffic, cramped quarters and logic defying patterns of the matatus every day. There are thousands who would glad deal with the quirks of matatus but who walk several hours to and from work because they can't afford the fifty shillings. My worries about danger had some merit. (The next day I saw a youth reach through the window of my matatu, snatch a man's bag off his lap and tear off with it through the maze of idling vehicles.) And yet there are countless people who have no choice but to live in those areas and face those dangers daily. When I worry about the possibility of muggings in Nairobi I have to remind myself that the U.S. has a much higher ratio of violent crime than Kenya does. Above all I have to trust that God is in control of my life. My worrying is not going to change anything. I have to trust that He has put me where I am for a purpose and that He will watch over me to insure that I am able to carry out that purpose. If God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, won't he also take care of me?

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