For the most part, riding in a bus or matatu is a temporary form of relief. I don’t worry about traffic. I can read a book or just stare at life going by. I can dream about the things I’d love to do and may never get to. I can give conversation my undivided attention.
And I get to walk as I connect between bus stops. When I’m walking to CBD from work, I sometimes pass through Uhuru Park and just marvel at this pocket of silence away that shields us from the traffic that is just a few meters away. I see people walk by. I see unemployed or casual laborers sleeping in the grass to pass away the hour because they can’t afford lunch, and will have to trek two hours home when offices close. I get irritated by the preachers deciding to start their church in the open and disturbing the silence with their hoarse voices. I smile at a couple that is definitely not Lazizi being taken to Java by the crooner of that Sauti Sol song. If you ask me, I think this couple in the park is better off, sitting on the grass and drinking soda.
But this Sunday was just as nice. On my ride back from church, I sat with a friend and we talked about everything from our (un)important dilemmas, the great service (I attend a fabulous church), writing and literature, the stories of our lives and maybe how we can make a difference. When the matatu got to Nyayo stadium, we found there was a detour through Lusaka road because there was a marathon. So that lengthened the journey by another hour. I even remarked that if I’d known the day would end up like this, I might have considered not attending the service in person but on live stream. But it was Sunday, so I didn’t mind. Then we got to Kencom, and had to do the trek of through the streets to where we pick our mathrees. It was a very laid back day. When I got home, I remembered the tail end of Jill Scott’s song:
Let's take a long walk around the park after dark
Find a spot for us to spark
Conversation, verbal elation, stimulation
Share our situations, temptations, education, relaxations, elevations
Maybe we can save the nation
The reality is that public transport in Kenya is a nightmare, and most use it out of obligation, rather than by choice. And since so many would rather avoid it, we have more people rushing to put cars on the road, which only increases the traffic that Nairobians like to call “free parking.” Bus stops to different places are at different points of the city, and so the walk between connections, especially if one has kids and luggage, is not about saving the nation but a damn chore. For some reason, our city fathers – despite all their foreign “benchmarking” trips – have not got the idea of having a loop that can connect people to the different points in town. It would reduce the need for people to drive because the connections are convenient.
And frankly speaking, matatu journeys are mostly noisy, tedious and tiring. Manambas are not polite, the drivers drive like maniacs, and if you’re taking a long journey, you pray that the vehicle actually has a speedometer and that you will get to your destination alive. In between, you could encounter road drama with police checks, of which you don’t know how long they will take, and deal with traffic, thanks to all the Kenyans who can afford cars, and to the trailer truck drivers who create literal trains on the roads but sabotage any effort to get the railway upgraded. And woe unto you if the heavens open. You’ll be not only wet, but paying an unreasonable amount of fare home.
A nation cannot work properly and be creative, cannot have sane human interactions, with this kind of infrastructural mess. We can't have great ideas, talk about Psalms in entirety, if there’s nowhere we can just be silent. We won’t stop reducing human relations to materialist interests when there are no parks where people "can feel the breeze and listen to a symphony."
We must improve our public services. We need more parks. Better public transport. As my friend Muoki Mbunga says, transport is a revolutionary agenda. We need a leadership with balls to tell truck companies that we cannot keep wasting resources on those chains of vehicles that have given the town Mlolongo its name. Our leaders need some vision to accommodate roller bladers and cyclists on our roads, and thus reduce the so-called lifestyle diseases because people are moving about by skating, cycling and walking. We would reduce the pollution rate by people not needing to use vehicles. We can save the nation by changing our long walks from those in search of water, education in schools and medical care in hospitals that are too far away, connections because of incoherent public transport, to long walks that inspire, refresh and stimulate.