While it was natural for humidity to follow the torrential mid-morning rains, the afternoon air on this day was unusually thick. My jeans felt heavy and clung to my legs. I dragged two bulging nylon bags toward the bus station in Kisumu, hoping they wouldn’t tear, not caring about the mud. People trudged in all directions, engrossed in their own private game of avoidance—avoid mud puddles, especially the ones with rotting plastic bags; avoid street kids, especially the glue-sniffing gangs of boys; avoid stray animals, especially the mangy ones.
Along the perimeter of waiting matatus, or Kenyan minibuses, stood a row of dukas, or stall-like shops, selling everything from mobile phones to sweaters to Coca-Cola. In front, women sat on small plastic stools, selling ears of corn right off the charcoal or samosas deep-fried on demand. My mouth watered at the smell. I longed for a hot cup of chai (sweetened milk tea), but the ride from Kisumu to Kapsabet would take two hours, and the last thing I wanted was to risk having to pee in a bush while 15 other passengers looked on.
As I got closer to the lines of waiting matatus, touts waved and shouted, clamoring for my attention to buy their wares. It’s not that I was the only potential passenger, but I was the only potential foreign passenger—someone who might hand over two, three, or four times the correct fare out of ignorance, apathy, or sympathy. Hell, I might even tip.
“Ssss-ssss, miss! Over here! Where are you going?”
I hate it when they hiss at me, I thought.
“Going to Nairobi, miss? We drive very fast! You will arrive very quickly!”
“Come, miss! I give you the best seat! Where are you going?”
I had to chuckle. A best seat? In a matatu?
“Please. Give me your bag. Let me help you.”
Nope, not falling for that again!
“Hey! Japanese! No? China lady? China lady, come here! Ching chong! Hello! You understand me?”
My cheeks began to burn. A familiar mix of embarrassment and anger swelled up inside my chest. I clenched my jaw; my breath came hard and fast. “I understand you just fine, ufala! I speak English!”
A group of men—boys, really—laughed hysterically. With a surge of adrenaline fueled by indignation, I lifted my bags high and walked quickly to the last line of matatus, the ones going north toward the city of Eldoret.
Surprisingly, the tout said nothing as I handed him some shillings, threw my bags on the floor, and climbed inside. I was the last to board the 18-person van. Once I settled into my seat and it became clear just how much legroom was leftover, the tout whistled and motioned to someone. An old woman with a conspicuous overbite hobbled over and shoved a small cage next to my right foot. In it was a single chicken. Right.
“Tuende, tuende!” (“Let’s go, let’s go!”) The tout shouted and hit the doorframe twice with his palm. The matatu began rolling forward while the tout stood in the mud counting the bills. A few seconds passed before he leaped into the side of the moving vehicle and slid the door shut. I reached for my seatbelt. Fuck! I thought. It’s broken.
“Bwana!” I said. The tout looked at me. I pointed at the broken belt. He shook his head and made a noise—tsk tsk. I couldn’t tell whether he was sympathizing with me or shaming me, as if I’d broken it intentionally.
Now, as a young, idealistic adventurer, I had no real concerns for my health and safety, but I did worry about my freedom. I worried that if the police searched our vehicle at a checkpoint, I’d be arrested and fined for not wearing a seatbelt. Seatbelts were always required by law, but it was enforced haphazardly, usually when the government was short on funds, and usually following a corruption scandal…which had just happened recently.
I thought about this as we left Kisumu, a port city on the shores of Lake Victoria. We sped over flat, golden plains, and Kenyan hip-hop blared from the speakers. Strings of beads and a large silver cross swayed from the rearview mirror. Occasionally, we squealed to a stop to allow a passenger off or on, but before long, we were winding through the hills of the Nandi Forest, an area that tends to produce Kenya’s best marathon runners.
Once through the Nandi Forest, the matatu slowed, gently this time, and everyone knew why: we were approaching a checkpoint. The tout slid the door open and shouted at the police officers, “Habari za mchana!” (“Good afternoon!”)
Two officers, a man and a woman, said nothing but motioned to the driver to pull over. Large semi-automatic guns hung over their shoulders, and the man wore a sash of bullets. No one smiled.
I could hardly breathe, and I quickly considered who I would call if I were arrested. My mental list became irrationally long as I tried not to think about the stories I’d heard from those who had already, at one time or another, been hauled off to a police station in this country. Peeing in communal buckets, overnights with no food, trading a bank account number for freedom. And then I got angry: Fucking matatu’s got a sub-woofer but no seatbelts. Idiots!
The male officer poked his head in the back door. To each person not wearing a seatbelt, he pointed and barked, “Njoo hapa! Njoo hapa!” (“Come here! Come here!”) One by one, passengers—including me—climbed out of the matatu and stood by the side of the road.
The female officer opened the back of the police wagon and motioned for people to start getting inside. I wondered how we were all going to fit. Surely they’d have to make at least two trips. Would it be better to be among the first or last? Should I take my bags? Would the chicken be alright, now that the cage had space to slide all over the floor as the matatu continued to its destination?
Two older women began crying and speaking earnestly in Swahili to the female police officer. A young woman, my age perhaps, crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. Behind her, two men chatted as though they were simply colleagues in line for lunch. Another man clutched his mobile phone and, for whatever reason, a toothbrush. The officer ignored them all completely. Then after a minute, she shouted, “Excuse me!”
I realized she was looking at me. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I closed it again and simply stared at her.
“You!” She walked toward me, shouting in English. “Where are you from?”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to say that I’m American. In that case, who knew how much I’d have to pay to be released from jail? News of American poverty, or even the middle-class, hadn’t yet reached rural Kenya. But I didn’t want to lie either.
“Chinese lady?” she barked.
I kept staring at her, not on purpose, I simply couldn’t move, or speak, or think. Her gun bounced off of her thigh as she walked.
“You, Chinese lady,” she said again, a bit softer this time but nowhere near friendly. “You must wear a seatbelt! It’s the law! Do you understand me?”
Still frozen, I said and did nothing. Then, she motioned for me to get back inside the waiting matatu.
“Go!” she shouted. “Go on to wherever you’re going.” I stepped toward the minibus, trying not to appear too eager. “This mzungu doesn’t even speak English,” I heard her mutter, completely exasperated and to no one in particular. “How am I supposed to deal with that?”
I sat down, this time in a seat with a working seatbelt.
And this time, completely pleased with being called a China lady.