I am already five minutes late for class. It will take me another half an hour to walk to school but I still choose to walk. There is something about a morning walk in the fog with the cold tingling my cheeks that I find rejuvenating. I pray the lecturer comes late today.
As I walk past the bus stop, a matatu stops. I consider boarding but from experience, I know I will be frustrated by the end of the journey. I miss the matatus of Mombasa town which mostly abide by the fourteen-passenger rule. Here, fourteen meant four more teens will be accommodated. How could I compare these old, stuffy matatus with rude conductors to the matatus of Mombasa? I was even once told to alight when I complained that the matatu was overloaded.
I remember not long ago when I was returning to town from Kisauni. I had waited for five minutes by the roadside and I was getting impatient when a King’orani matatu came by. If I boarded the matatu, I would have to alight at Markiti and walk all the way to Baroda — I wanted to buy ‘babu kachri’ on my way home — but I thought it was better than waiting for a matatu going to Docks or Ferry because I felt self-conscious standing alone. I peeked into the matatu and I find it to be nearly full.
“It’s already full,” I tell the conductor, moving away from the road.
“Come on sister, there’s an empty seat at the back,” he pleads for me to board.
“I don’t want to sit at the back,” I give the excuse, reconsidering the walk from Markiti to Baroda as my stomach growled.
The conductor then instructs a young man who was sitting in the second row to move to the back so that I can sit there. Feeling guilty and ashamed for causing someone trouble and pitying the conductor for his effort, I board the matatu. Inside, I see the ubiquitous white and red sticker seen in every other public vehicle that read: ‘ukitaka kujua vichochoro meza fare’. I forcefully exhaled air from my nostrils; an attempt at laughter.
Oh how I wish the conductors here were half as friendly but people don’t appreciate things until they lose them. It was only after I came here that I started truly loving my home city and understood why it was called Mombasa raha. A few steps ahead, I pass by a group of motorcyclists.
“Waria, motorbike,” one says.
“Halima, how are you?” another chirps in.
“Maimuna, don’t blow us up,” yet another one joins.
They seem to have found something to amuse themselves as they wait in boredom for a customer. I pay them no heed and pass them indifferently. I wonder whether when a man walks by they ask him how he is doing or the ‘greetings’ are only reserved for ladies.
When I first came to this town, it used to annoy me when they called me a Waria. Why did they assume that everyone with a scarf wrapped around their head was a Somali? But then I realised that we, the ‘coastarians’, were also fond of putting all the ‘non-coastarians’ into one group. Did we not refer to all people from the highlands as wabara or worse still, as waafrika as if we ourselves were not Africans? These days, when someone calls me a Waria I internally reply “Yes I’m a warrior, thanks for the reminder.”
Lost in my thoughts, I don’t see a twig on the path. I stumble and down the memory lane, I go.
I was young then. Maybe seven or eight years old when I stumbled as I walked with my late grandmother (may Allah have mercy on her).
“What should you say?” she asks. That was her way of telling me I forgot to say a supplication.
“But I didn’t sneeze, I stumbled. Is there a supplication for stumbling?” I asked her puzzled.
“Say ‘inna lillahi wainna ilayhi rajiun’. To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return”
“But that’s said when one dies,” I argue.
“It is said when a calamity strikes, whenever something bad happens, say it,” she teaches me and it stuck with me ever since.
Many years later, there was a time when I was so clumsy and I ended up breaking several utensils. And whenever something broke, I’d utter inna lillahi wainna ilayhi rajiun. One day, she gave me a bowl of food to take to the dining table and she said, “Tena shika vizuri sije sasa hivi ukaanza inna lillahi zako.” following it up with a parody of how I say it with one hand on her head and the other on her chest feigning shock. I double over laughing and the bowl almost slips from my hands. It occurred to me then, that it annoyed her when I break things but when I utter the supplication, it seems like a calamity has befallen me rather than I having caused the calamity and she can no longer scold me so she was now doing it in advance. The next time you break something, try this and it might save you from the famous ‘vunja shangazi yako atalipa’
I smile at the memory and realise how much I miss her. Before, whenever I went back home during the holidays, my excitement heightened when I saw the massive bronze coffee kettle next to the white coffee cups with green and red motifs outside Fort Jesus. To me, it signified that in a few minutes I’ll be able to see my loved ones. Ironically, when I reach the same place now, sadness overwhelms me because of who lies at the cemetery just across the coffee set. Sometimes home is a person and when they depart, they take a part of us with them. My throat becomes dry and I feel a sharp pain deep in my nose, the one one feels right before they cry. I make a mental note to search on the physiological basis of the pain. I will myself not to cry. At least not now. It could wait until the darkness could hide the silent tears.
“Oh Allah, forgive her and grant her Jannatul Firdaus. Make her happy,” I fervently pray for her.
“Ya Rabbi sahlah. Ya Rabbi takhfif. Oh my Lord ease, oh my Lord relief.” I pray for myself using words she often repeated. Words she was last heard uttering the night before her death.
I remind myself that I need to call my grandfather tonight. I wonder what he’ll make fun of today. The last time I called, I asked him whether he knew whom he was talking to and he said that he could recognise my squeaky voice even before I started clearing my throat. This summoned a hearty laughter and I could almost see his trademark smirk through the phone. I have a habit of constantly clearing my throat and he doesn’t let any opportunity to taunt me about it pass. The other day he said I needed to get rid of the habit or else I might find myself being referred to as Dr ahem! I pretend to wipe non-existent dust on my face in an effort to hide the goofy grin as I recall my grandfather’s antics.
My thoughts are cut short when I realise I’m already at the gate. I start to key in my identification number but the security guard stops me and asks for my ID. I reason with him that I knew my number off head but he insists on seeing my ID. Not hiding my frustration, I fish for it in my bag. I hated it when the guards acted so authoritative very early in the morning. Where did they get all this energy from while here I was still struggling to fully open my sleepy eyes? I wanted to ask him why the school bothered to install sophisticated sensors when they still wanted to use manual systems of identification but I hold my tongue reminding myself that they have to do their job and it’s still too early to have a bad mood. I remind myself of the verse
‘… and those who restrain anger and pardon people; and Allah loves the doers of good’ [Quran 3:134].
He looks at my ID and asks if I was the one in the picture. I wanted to tell him it was my brother but I stop myself because I don’t want to appear rude and I also noticed that most people here don’t seem to understand sarcasm. I would not be surprised if he asked me why my brother looked like a lady and why I was using his ID.
That is another thing that makes me miss home. At the coast, conversations dripped with sarcasm just as our food was saturated with coconut milk, spices and sweetness. It would be a miracle if a mother replied to her child’s questions. She’ll either ask another question or give a sarcastic remark.
“Maa unnunua pesa nga’?”
“N’taka tu kujua”
“Basi tu n’jue”
“Nnanunua na pesa zote!”
Or like this time when a young me was eager to follow my grandmother as she leaves the house.
“Bi wendapi’ n’kufwate?”
“Uzeeni nwapi?” I asked puzzled.
“Uzeeni ni ukubwani,” she answers.
“Na ukubwani nwapi?”
“Ni uzeeni.” She replied, enjoying the effect her words are having on me.
I get so confused I decide that wherever that place was, I did not want to go.
And yet here’s another incident when my other grandmother gives my sister a packet of milk.
“Ninywe?” my sister asks.
“Jipake,” she replies immediately with a straight face!
So early in life, you learn to observe more and avoid asking obvious questions. Here, when I’m sarcastic either people get offended or they want an explanation. They seem oblivious to the fact that explained jokes often lose their humour.
I take the stairs two at a time, not only because I wanted to get to class fast but also because the child in me wanted to see whether I could beat the elevator! I have to stop to catch a breath at the end of the flight. One of our lecturers had told us the previous week that to be healthy, one had to follow three rules: one was to eat healthy, two was to exercise regularly and three was to never forget rule one and two. I realise I am lacking in all of them and I promise to take better care of my health.
I reach in class just in time to hear the class representative announce that the lecturer just called to say that he was stuck in a traffic jam and would be a bit late. I thank Allah for answering my prayer and I couldn’t help but think that were it my sister, she would have jokingly said something along the lines of ‘Wantosha mi Sharifu babu.’
Speaking of my sister, I reminiscence how we constantly fight when we are around each other. I recall punching her one day while she was busy on her phone and not in the mood for a fight.
“Oya tulia bana mbona una masifa?” She fumes.
“We nae kibitwa nakukanda lakini waringa kweli.” I jokingly say and I land her another punch.
“Staki kandwa kakande unga,” she retorts and I freeze in place.
“We chezea simu upige stori zote lakini bora nkija uwe ushakanda unga,” my aunt had said before leaving the house some hours ago. I head to the kitchen with a sense of urgency, all the previous mischief forgotten. I can just count on her to spoil my mood!
The lecturer arrives and the lesson begins. It’s interesting at first but halfway through I’m having trouble concentrating. I ask myself were it a close relative or someone I adored teaching, would I be bored? This helps me a bit and I regain some focus. I glance at my watch. Forty more minutes! I tell myself that it’s just two twenty-minutes, four ten-minutes and it seems more bearable.Then he asks a question from the previous lecture and no one answers. It’s not that we don’t know the answer, but we have developed a habit of just waiting until he picks a random name from the signing sheet.
The lecture ends and I have one hour before the next class. I’m getting sicker by the minute. Home sick! Everything around me seems to remind me how Mombasa is different and how much I miss it. It might seem like I hate this place but I really don’t. It’s my second home. There are obviously things that are better here than in Mombasa, for instance, the constant supply of fresh water. The first time I took a bath I felt like I was doing israf, extravagance. It felt like bathing with mineral water. The weather here is also more tolerable unlike the sizzling heat in Mombasa. I have trouble readjusting to the heat when I go back home and the fan is constantly on when I’m there. Something that made my grandmother once say to no one in particular that that month’s bill was surely going to be high. Her subtleness was just on another level!
I feel drained after the three hour-long lecture and I head to the cafe to replenish my glucose stores. Daydreaming about viazi karai dipped in ukwaju, I use every ounce of energy left in me to lift one foot, then the other. I’m both emotionally and physically exhausted. Only five more days are left before I get to fill my lungs with the salty breeze of Mombasa. I look towards the skies and ask Allah to help me survive this last week of the semester. Ya Rabbi sahlah. Ya Rabbi takhfif.