Kang’ethe and the Matatu

Jake ran, his feet treading on a soft cushion of dew-covered grass, down a narrow goat path bordered by heavily pruned pencil cedar trees. Ahead, clad as always in his worn gray suit coat and pants, Mzee Kang’ethe outpaced Jake, easily widening the distance between them. Kang’ethe was 72 years old and smoked 2 packs of Sportsman cigarettes every day. Jake was exactly fifty years younger and had never smoked in his life, yet he struggled to keep up with the older man.

An impatient miraa-chewing matatu driver revved the engine impatiently, pulling forward a few inches, threatening to leave his would-be passengers behind.

Kang’ethe looked back to find Jake lagging behind and urged him onward.

“Jake, we must hully,” implored Kang’ethe in his heavily Gikuyu-accented English. “The matatu will be reaving without us!”

Jake was huffing and puffing in the thin air of North Kinangop’s nearly 8,000-foot elevation. Kang’ethe reached the vehicle before Jake and scolded the young driver in harsh Gikuyu for forcing an old man to run. Jake caught up a few seconds later. The vehicle was already completely packed with bodies, but, as the conductors frequently said, there was always room for one more passenger in a matatu.

Mzee Kang’ethe wedged his lanky frame ass-first between two large older ladies, forcing space for himself on one of the hard metal benches that served as seats. Jake stood, hunching as best he could to squeeze his 6’2” body into the tight confines of the overcrowded matatu.

A mother nursed a large child inches from Jake’s face, and both mother and child stared intently at Jake. The child was wrapped in layers of knit clothing and wore a crocheted woolen skullcap, even though the temperature was a comfortably warm 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Yellowish mucus oozed slowly from the child’s nostrils like dual mollusk trails from nose to chin that dried to a flaky crust and broke away from the skin in flakes.

Jake felt the muscles of his left leg begin to cramp. His left leg was supporting his entire weight due to the awkward position he was in, and he was forced to stand on the tips of his toes, making his calf muscles quiver in pain. Someone’s elbow poked sharply in his ribs, and the commingled odor of the many closely confined bodies left him breathing through his mouth. His nose filled with the aroma of smoke and milk and the acrid stench of shit from the baby’s soiled diaper.

The vehicle lurched and bucked over pockmarked roads that had been neglected for most of Kenya’s existence as an independent nation. If the car had once been equipped with shock absorbers, they had long since ceased to function. Every few hundred meters the sharp slap of the conductor’s hand against the metal roof of the matatu echoed through the vehicle, signaling the driver to stop. At each stop an awkward shuffle ensued as passengers squeezed their way on or off of the vehicle. Even though it appeared to Jake that the vehicle was already stuffed well beyond capacity, more and more passengers boarded until the conductor was left hanging from the matatu’s rear bumper, dangling from one arm and leg in a perilous ballet of acrobatic bravado.

After what seemed like an eternity, a passenger disembarked, opening a space on one of the benches that lined the sides of the vehicle and Jake was able to take a seat. His legs ached and he massaged his cramping calf muscles.

Kang’ethe sat opposite Jake on the other side of the vehicle, still wedged firmly between the enfolding layers of his large female neighbors. A wry smile formed under his wispy gray mustache.

“Jake, you are hearing pain?” asked Kang’ethe. The Swahili word for hear was the same as the word for feel, and Kang’ethe routinely transposed the two in English.

“Hapana, niko sawa,” said Jake in Swahili. “No, I’m okay.”

The large Kikuyu ladies on either side of Kang’ethe laughed at hearing Jake speak Swahili. They said something loudly in GiKuyu that made everyone else in the vehicle laugh. Jake blushed and felt suddenly very conspicuous.

When the vehicle reached the stop known as the malaika shortcut, both Jake and Kang’ethe alighted. Jake inhaled deeply, trying to rid his nostrils of the fetid odor of humanity. He stretched to his full height, feeling his cramped muscles uncoil. Kang’ethe lit another Sportsman and began walking swiftly along a narrow footpath through an abandoned field with his long-legged gait. He was constructing a large stone house across the road from the Peace Corps training center where Jake was spending his days.

Kang’ethe’s workers sat idly atop a pile of rough building stones, but they leapt to their feet when the older man approached. He barked a series of terse orders in GiKuyu and the men immediately jumped to work, shoveling sand into a wheelbarrow, carrying stones from one pile to another, and preparing the job site for the day’s work.

The house’s foundation had been laid out on the hillside, and two rows of stones had already been laid in place. The house would be immense when finished, and would overlook the shimmering waters of Lake Naivasha below, and the distant looming black dormant volcanic cone of Mt. Longonot. Kang’ethe had once told Jake that when Longonot had last erupted it had blown the top clean off the mountain, and it had been found lying several hundred kilometers away. He made it sound as if this had happened only a few years back.

Jake bade farewell to Kang’ethe and wished him a good day before making his way toward the gate of the Peace Corps training center. He was not looking forward to sitting in Swahili language class for four insufferable hours, and had not done his homework. He was struggling to find the motivation to take the language lessons seriously. Everyone around Naivasha seemed to speak primarily GiKuyu, or perfectly good English. Hardly anyone used Swahili.

Jake sat through the Swahili lessons grudgingly, distracted often by the cackling of sacred ibises outside the window. He wasn’t bad at it, in fact he had been surprised to discover that he had a knack for picking up a new language. But he found the formal lessons tedious. He much preferred casual conversations outside the classroom with the instructors, where he could let his natural curiosity guide his learning. When the bell finally rang for the tea break, he bolted straight for the lunchroom to get a cup of hot milky tea. He stood alone in the warm equatorial sun, cooled by a light breeze, staring at the shimmering waters of Lake Naivasha below and watching the ibises flock around the yellowish-green acacia trees of the training center’s grounds.

Jake inhaled deeply. The morning air was crisp and cool and bone dry. He sipped his cup of milky tea and considered again how lucky he was to be in this place, at this time. Across the street he heard the sounds of construction from Kang’ethe’s workmen hammering away at stones and mixing cement, and he pictured the stately gray-haired old man, standing straight and tall on the hillside above the lake in his worn but dignified suit and polished black shoes, an ever-present Sportsman smoldering in his lips.

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