I don’t say hello to her. Not at first. I don’t know why, but I am one of those timid humans who don’t say hello to strangers often but then find myself having random and lengthy conversations with these strangers, at the very end of which the hello comes tumbling out of my lips.
So, I have just boarded this Citi Hoppa at Ambassadeur (I think this is how one spells this bus stop’s name) and it is hot. Really hot. If it gets one degree hotter than this, I will file a petition at the High Court just to vex the Court. See, I am a student at The Kenya School of Law and someone somewhere decided that we should wear suits to school even if hell’s very heat transferred to Nairobi.
In my black suit (black, if memory serves, tends to store all the heat) I sit next to a lady who is seated next to the window and I particularly enjoy sitting next to her because she understands the importance of fresh air. She is not one of these annoying people who sit inside a stationary vehicle and refuse to open the window. And when you ask them to, they stare at you like you have just smashed a rotten egg on their skull.
But I digress.
I have my earphones on and I have pumped the volume way up past the “Raise volume above recommended level? Listening at high volume for long periods may damage your hearing” warning. You only live once, right? Why not destroy your eardrums while at it. No use taking perfectly healthy eardrums to the grave. I hope someone out there understands sarcasm.
A Citi Hoppa official announces something that I prefer not to listen to because I love my music more than I love listening to instructions but the moment he stops talking and disembarks, I get this jolt of curiosity. What was he saying? Could it be important?
I like being tactful. So instead of turning to my lady neighbor and asking, “What did he say?” especially seeing as how I deliberately refused to listen, I look around, see a notice above our heads reading, “No hawkers allowed, Smoking is prohibited (like anyone in their right minds would light up in a bus. Right? Right?), No beggars allowed, No preachers allowed” and the last one just for good measure, “No pickpockets allowed” and that is what I use to commence a conversation.
“He said we shouldn’t allow preachers in the bus, right? Like we should raise an alarm when someone says ‘open your Bibles to Malachi Chapter…’ whatever.”
“No.” The lady replies. “He said that we should all demand to alight at our respective stops. The bus shouldn’t take detours hence dropping passengers off at the wrong places just because their respective routes had too much traffic.”
And I observe that that is a good thing to share with passengers. Especially because I once boarded a matatu to Chiromo, but instead of using Waiyaki Way, they used another road and dropped an angry me off somewhere near Parklands Police Station! I was furious! You should have seen me kicking the dust and trying to yank the lightening right from the skies and on to the roof of the errant matatu. Then when I finally got to Chiromo, I boarded another matatu and repeated thrice to the conductor that he should drop me off at the Netherlands Embassy along Riverside Drive. Can someone tell me why he dropped me off at the German Embassy like a whole kilometer away from my destination?
I really need to muster the art of not digressing.
Back to the bus. I am telling the lady that I would put up with a beggar begging inside the bus but I would not put up with a preacher conducting their business in the bus.
“Why not?” She asks. And I explain that I don’t understand why I have to listen to someone preaching everywhere I go. I can’t enjoy a good rest at “Jobless Corner” (that park where people sit between the Hilton Hotel and Moi Avenue) without someone deciding that I am thirsty for the Good Word. I can’t sit and stare aimlessly at people and at the Tom Mboya Statue in front of the Kenya National Archives without at least three preachers trying to preach to me at the same time. At the end of which, I am supposed to “give something small (kitu kidogo tu) to aid with spreading the Gospel.”
“But it is the Word of God. Jesus asked His disciples to spread the Gospel. He also asked them not to carry anything because the people to whom they preach will feed them and clothe them. How can you say that?”
And I ask her a simple question. Or two. Or ten. Why is it that I have never walked into a bus where an Imam is preaching? Doesn’t Allah want His word to spread? Isn’t Buddha interested in the spread of Buddhism either? And where do you draw the line between “Spread the Gospel and get something small to help you on your journey” and “Beware of false prophets?”
The ensuing discussion, which I could reduce to writing were it not for lack of space, fails to convince me. So she asks why I would put up with begging in the bus as opposed to preaching.
I read Coelho once. Well, I read Coelho a lot. And in his book “The Zahir”, he raises a very interesting argument which I tend to agree with to some extent. Not wholly, but to some extent. He posits, through his main character whose name I forget and also through a kid called Mikhail that some beggars beg because they need the money, but primarily because they want to live outside the rules.
They see the rest of us hurrying to a job we hate just so as to earn a living we don’t enjoy, pay rent for an apartment we don’t enjoy living in because we only spend our time in it over the weekend since during the week we have to live early so we can get to the office early before the traffic becomes a nightmare and come back to late in the night after traffic dies down.
And we also pay for nights out with people whose company we don’t really enjoy without the assistance of alcohol and these beggars remember that they have been us and they don’t want to live like that anymore. So they decide to live a life minus responsibilities and rules. They decide, in their own way, to be completely free. “That is why you will find a beggar with a better phone than yours.”
We do unanimously agree though, that we do not find those begging women with hordes of kids around them amusing. She is particularly uncomfortable with them dragging those poor children through the streets even in cold nights and sending them out on their own to beg from strangers. She is very categorical about how disturbing she found this.
By now we have managed to crawl our way out of town, down Haile Sellasie Avenue and Uhuru Highway and we are now making our way up Lang’ata Road. And she makes a comment about the drought in West Pokot and how she wonders how there can still be drought when we have all these donors just pouring aid into those areas.
“And look at Kibera.” She says passionately pointing at what she can see of the slum from the bus along Lang’ata Road. “I bet that billions of dollars of aid have been poured into that slum since time immemorial and it is still a slum. Life doesn’t change. How can that be?”
“Have you ever heard of Illicit Financial Flows? (IFFs)” I ask her and she explains that though she has never heard of the term, it must have something to do with finances flowing illicitly out of somewhere. Which is true. For example in Kenya, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) put forward to Kenyans that the country losses a third of its budget to corruption annually. That is one form of IFFs in Kenya.
In Africa, we lose about 50 million Euros annually to IFFs including corruption, money laundering, and drug trafficking etcetera. And I explain to my lady neighbor that if we weren’t losing such copious amounts of cash to these stupid crimes meant to only line up a few gluttonous stomachs, Kenya and Africa as a whole would be totally independent.
“But we are independent. The Kenyan Constitution galvanizes our sovereignty even.” That’s what she says.
But are we really independent? Are we really sovereign? If we didn’t lose 1/3 of our budget (that is more than Ksh. 600 billion) annually to corruption, if we properly utilized that money, we wouldn’t need aid. We wouldn’t need USAID or World Bank or other pecuniary assistance from the West. And if we don’t need their help, we don’t feel the need to keep yelling in the media about our sovereignty as a nation because we would not feel like our decisions are being influenced by the west just because they give us a little money every time our fellow citizens are dying of hunger.
“A corrupt nation is not a sovereign nation. I can assure you that. It does not matter what the Constitution says. We remain slaves until the day when we will get over our own greed and decide to put the nation first. The Second World War ended with the fall of Germany and Japan with the latter being silenced with two atomic bombs! Not one, but two! Did you hear of USAID helping Japan to get back on its feet? I know I didn’t. Did you hear of the World Bank building wells for people in Germany? I didn’t. But look at these two countries now. They literally emerged from the ashes and rumble into the biggest economies in the world without aid. Why does Africa need aid? Why does Kenya need aid? I don’t get it. And it is not like we have torn our country down in war and are now rebuilding.”
By now, our bus is cruising down South Lang’ata Road and the Kenya School of Law, where we both attend, is in the vicinity.
“You should be an activist.” She says. “You might effect some change.”
“We have enough of those already though I doubt a country can have too many activists. I prefer to change myself before I ask others to change. I prefer to assure myself that I cannot take a bribe no matter what. Maybe then when I tell people that I have never engaged in an act of corruption in my life, they will believe me.”
“Well,” She is smiling, “Go forth and conquer.” She offers her hand for shaking saying, “I am Nemo by the way.”
“And I am Charles. Sorry for going on and on about these things. I guess I just walk around with my eyes open and my heart ready to feel.”
“Hello Charles. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.”
And I conclude with a hello. A hearty conversation that ends with a “hello”. Just the way I like them.