22 Mar An Armyman and The Countryside
By George Mbiwa.
The countryside is a stark contrast from the city. And the difference is spectacularly reincarnated for folks in the habit of visiting once or twice between January and December. December is the peak travelling season, and bus companies on the lookout to cash in on the frenzied travellers usually raise fares exorbitantly.
I sought to outsmart these bus operators so I braved the desertion of the City over the festivities and waited for the whole travelling hype to subside. Frankly, the rampant road accidents at the time also gave me cold feet.
Just weeks ago, I decided to take the journey.
I check in at Transline Bus Station past Afya Centre on a Friday at 8 am. I have not booked to travel which means there’s no allocated seat. So as soon as I am ushered in the bus, I begin looking for a suitable sitting spot. All the seats near the windows are taken so I browse through faces as if to scout for my accomplice for the next 8 hours.
I finally settle on a middle-aged man. I make as if to pass him before I sit almost at the edge of the seat. Anything unexpected could ensue whenever strangers are put together in a bus for a journey this long, so you got to choose carefully. Small talk might emanate from passengers but this could dissipate as soon as it started, leaving behind a cloud of awkwardness.
I cannot remember what question it is that I ask that sparks a conversation but suddenly we are talking. More of a one-sided conversation where I am doing all the nodding, making ‘mmmh’ sounds. And while maintaining a low tone to fend off eavesdroppers, the guy goes on and on – first, about his son who is a candidate at Maseno School.
The Maseno School! I am hooked. This was my number one National School choice while in Standard Eight. My relationship with Maseno goes way back; not only is it a coveted school but also my father schooled there. And by that virtue, I wanted to school there too. I tell myself that I missed it by a whisker.
In a moment, I am in the know that this man is in the army and has taken three days leave to see his son in school. But first, he will spend the night at his rural home. I do not mention to him that I am a writer; he does not ask. Maybe he would have thought of censoring his words. Now the engines are roaring and the bus is leaving the station. He could make a great company, after all, I think.
At this point, I inwardly hope that this situation will not morph into a twisted version of the ‘Chanchori story’. It strikes me that I should be more accommodative as probably he has seen so much on the battlefield, and this is his way of venting. These are the true Kenyan heroes. My ah-ahs grow all the more enthusiastic.
He tells me how hard it is in the army. I do not prod as to the exact meaning of this for fear of being intrusive but I get a rough picture. I am particularly struck by how proudly this man speaks of his son. “That boy…’’ he quips. “That boy loves books, do you know he has never attained below the B+ grade since Form Three? He even spent the last holidays at his Mathematics teacher’s home helping out while being tutored.”
He briefly mentions how his father favours his other brothers because they are more learned. Could this explain his pride in the boy? His way of proving that he could also sire a brilliant mind? At this point, I am thinking this is too much information but I cannot help but wonder how many fathers can speak as proudly of their children to total strangers.
“I intend to initiate a chicken business for him once he completes school, these days a job is not something to wait upon.” I cannot agree more, I am jobless myself. We reach the Maai Mahiu escarpments and he mentions something about how fatal it could be if an accident occurred there; a little chatter then silence.
A brief moment of awkwardness stalks us as the juicy tales dry out (they always do at some point). I feel the nudge to break the silence but wonder whether whatever I want to say would even make sense. I mean he has been doing all the talk, I should probably chip in.
I opt to fiddle with my phone, trying to check something on WhatsApp but my WhatsApp activity is near-mute on this day – just when I need the distraction. I reread a couple of messages, and after more silent moments slowly turn to steal a glance at him and sight him napping. Sooner than later, I also slumber.
As we approach Kisii, the banter is reignited. He is proudly commenting about the fertile soils that produce bountiful yields, how crops are planted up to the doorstep, how one cannot spot a single grass-thatched house in the area, and how Safaricom is doing massive branding in these parts. We pass by a seemingly posh resort under construction and he states, almost certainly, that it is constructed using funds stolen by a prominent politician. Also, he has an opinion on the infamous man who drew media attention by building a house on a tree by the wayside near Kisii. He is a true son of the soil.
I just sit there like an apprentice, imbibing all this knowledge, giving my incessant ‘mmmhs’ and occasionally commenting albeit carefully. When we reach our destination, my bum is sweaty and my head is aching. He bids me farewell but I tell myself that his is a phone number worth taking. I also get to know his name. I have not called him since but I have a feeling I will very soon.