Monday, July 31, 2006

Typical Day In the Neighborhood

Sundays are for church, thank God. My day off. I went to Eldoret to run some errands and meet a friend. Sunday is always the most laid back day of the week because everyone is in church all morning. My new organization has a strict dress code – no trousers for ladies, and no t-shirts. That rules out most of my wardrobe, so I had to make a trip to the mitumba, or open-air used clothing market.

Eldoret has a lively mitumba but apparently not on Sunday mornings. There were only about seven vendors (as opposed to the usual hundreds), but I still managed to get four nice shirts (collars and buttons) for 10 shillings each. You can’t beat the Kenyan mitumba, man; that’s where I’m buying all my clothes before I return to America.

Around 3pm the multitudes of mitumba vendors were sprung from church and began to set up shop along the side streets in town. It was a bit overwhelming because there are the street “stalls” which are just a plastic tarp on the sidewalk (I mean “sidewalk”) with a pile of clothes selling for so cheap that you don’t even have to bargain (ten shillings for shirts, 20 shillings for trousers in odd sizes, colors and fabrics), and the dukas (permanent shops) that sell both used clothes and somewhat fashionable new clothes from China for 600 shillings or more.

Next to the mitumba were a bunch of mamas selling the usual selection of vegetables and fruit…and lethargic termites squirming in a large bag. I had to stop and stare. All around me people were laughing and yelling at each other in mother tongue.

“Blah blah blah blah China blah blah,” they said to each other, which I took to mean, “The China is looking at the termites.”

The vendor pulled out a plastic bag and started filling it with termites for me.

“No thanks, not today,” I said. “Why don’t they fly away? They still have their wings.”

“They cannot,” a man next to me said. “They are inside the bag.”

An old mama had just bought a bag of termites, flitting their wings with a doomed sort of resignation, and offered me some. I shook my head and watched her stuff a handful in her mouth.

“Why do you fear?” the man said to me. “They cannot harm.”

“They are so sweet when you fry them,” the mama told me, still shoving live termites into her mouth, wings and all.

“Okay,” I said, walking away quickly. “I will come another day.”

I hate hawkers. I boarded a matatu back to my town, and settled in next to a man who was arguing with a hawker who was shaking a book of first grade Kiswahili lessons in his face.

“I’m not studying Kiswahili these days,” he said, in Kiswahili.

The hawker didn’t budge. “Why can’t you take one?” he said.

“I don’t want this book today,” the passenger said.

The hawker held the book in his face and still didn’t move, as if he hadn’t heard.

“Bwana!” the passenger said. “I said I’m not buying it today.”

The hawker lingered motionlessly for another minute, still waving the book in the passenger’s face, waiting for the passenger to stop ignoring him, then gave up and went away, fortunately for him because I was contemplating how hard to punch him.

I hate matatus. Our matatu started to leave town, and I noticed we were taking a detour on a muddy dirt road, through maize fields.

“Why are we going this way?” I asked the man next to me.

“Ahh,” the man said. “Sijui Kiingereza. Kiswahili tu.” I don’t know English. Only Kiswahili.
“Kwa nini tunapitia njia hii?” I said.

“Iko traffic huko mbele,” he said. There’s traffic ahead.

I didn’t understand why there was traffic coming out of Eldoret on a Sunday evening. It took a few minutes for me to realize he meant there were traffic cops along the road, and our driver was trying to avoid them.

“Kwa nini wanafanya kama hii?” I said. Why are they doing this?

“Kwa sababu wako watu wengi,” he explained. Because there are too many passengers in the vehicle.

“Ai, hiyo ni mbaya,” I said. This sucks. “Ni haramu.” It’s illegal.

“Kweli, ni haramu,” he said. Yes, it’s totally illegal. “Wanataka pesa mingi.” But the conductors want to make more money.

Matatus are limited to 14 passengers by law, but conductors typically pack as many people in as they can because it means more money, unless they’re traveling a road with police checks. If the traffic cops discover that a matatu is operating over capacity, or that someone isn’t wearing a seatbelt, or that the vehicle’s license, registration or insurance is expired, they fine the conductor, driver, or offending passenger. Sounds like a pretty good road safety system, doesn’t it?

In reality, the police checks have only managed to ensure compliance on the few main highways where they are stationed, but in the sticks, which is most of Kenya, matatus are basically death traps packed so full of people that you can see eyeballs pressed up against the windows, with the conductor and some passengers literally hanging out the open door. And if the traffic cop finds a matatu in violation of one of the road rules, they are willing to accept a bribe rather than levying a fine.

Kenyans have been riding in over-filled matatus all their lives and have stopped wasting their breath complaining. I’ve been here just long enough to feel enough satisfaction complaining openly to lame conductors, which usually embarrasses them because they’re not used to being confronted, that it somewhat makes up for the fact that the conductor never actually reduces the passenger count to 14, or fixes the broken seat belts, or turns down the radio, or opens the window.

We managed to avoid the first police check, but we were stopped at the next one. I looked around and noticed that we were over capacity by four or five people. The conductor got out, went behind the vehicle and spoke quietly to the cop, and we were on our way without any argument.

Fifteen minutes and four stops later, our conductor was still stuffing more people in. The man next to me said, “Gari imejaa, tuende.” The vehicle is full, let’s go. He was the only person saying anything to the conductor.

The conductor ignored him, of course, and we went on our way, with three passengers hanging out the door. Several stops and five more passengers later, I lost my patience.

“Kwa nini unafanya kama hii?” I said loudly. Why are you doing this? “Ni haramu kujaza kabisa kama hii.” It’s illegal to fill the vehicle so full.

“Kwa nini unacomplain?” the jerk face conductor said. Why are you complaining? “Unaweza kutembea.” You can walk, then.

This did not please me, so I stopped speaking in Kiswahili.

“You’re doing something illegal, you know it’s illegal, you know you’re wrong, and you’re telling me to walk? You’re only supposed to have fifteen people in this vehicle and we have at least 20 or 25,” I sputtered, teetering on the threshold of strangling him, a not uncommon way for me to be in matatus, matatu stages, open-air markets, and anyplace where there are idle or drunk men.

The man next to me said, “Fourteen, it’s only supposed to have fourteen people.”

“We have fourteen people,” the conductor lied, as all the extra passengers crouched silently in the aisles.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” I said, loudly, as the man next to me laughed. “You count how many people there are here. This is illegal.”

“It’s not illegal,” the conductor lied. “If it were illegal then why did that policeman let us go through with extra passengers?”

“Because you gave him some kitu kidogo, maybe,” I said, using the Kiswahili euphemism for bribe, which translates as something small.

“What is kitu kidogo?” he said. “I don’t know that word.”

“Of course you do,” I said, speaking even more loudly. “Kitu kidogo ni bribe.”

“I don’t know that,” he said again. “There’s no kitu kidogo.”

“Ulilipa kitu kidogo,” I said, just to clarify for everyone on the matatu. You paid a bribe. “That’s why they let us pass with too many people on board.”

“Corruption,” the man next to me muttered, loud enough for everyone to hear. I was glad at least one person was willing to back me up publicly.


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