It is cold today. And even the thought of me getting home to the arms of my hot blanket does nothing for me. The driver seems to have been brought up with love. The music he plays warms my cold heart. It is straight up entertaining, heart wrenching and very briefly skirts the line as to what constitutes blasphemy. The lyrics to the song sound like this;
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
The song on the radio gets me wondering, what if God was one of us. He would probably be as pissed about traffic as I am. Maybe he would even have a pretty young girl with gorgeous shoulders who would keep him awake from time to time.
I am seated in a bus heading home. In one of those long traffic jams that happen whenever a little rain falls in the city. We lose our collective sanity as a nation and Nairobi descends into madness. It has been 15 minutes now and the bus has moved only 9 inches. The city smells like the midnight moon drenched in 37 liters of water…The smell has a name, huss I think. An Indian once told me that the smell of rain falling on hot soil did things for him, a woman’s touch could not. We are no longer friends with that gentleman. The bus is muddy inside. On my window, the rain has found an opening and streams in gently. Despite my best efforts at shutting the window, it keeps coming in. I respect the earnestness of its effort. The more I say no to it, the harder it fights for us to be together. My ex-girlfriend wishes I fought like that for her.
Seated next to me an older man keeps dozing off. He accidentally, I hope, lands on my shoulder and proceeds to have the nap of a lifetime. I am pissed but I admit I’m a bit jealous. I let him be. Not because I have a particularly kind heart but my mum likes to say I should be kind to strangers. She says it is the kindness of strangers that allowed me to exist. You know how mothers like to dispense wisdom wrapped in all manner of cryptic messaging.
So some years back, tired of her subliminal ability to throw major shade while instilling wisdom. I asked what she meant by that. I swear she smiled ear to ear. Happy that I had finally asked the question after years of waiting. So she told me a story, that started with her but really it was about me…maybe us.
To tell you the story I have to take you back, waaaaaay back, the seventies specifically. My mama was in campus back then. My step dad likes to say she was very fine looking then. I would rather not think of my mum in that manner. Nothing interesting ever happened in that school. It was a college run by the Catholic Church. The Sisters of Mercy, who ran the church had a different view of what mercy meant. So when my mother got pregnant they threw her out. You have to understand it was a different time then. Schools could do that, throw you out if your shade of blackness did not meet the Senior Sister’s approval. She was from England the good sister. A nation that prides itself in being prim and proper. My grandfather was, and still is, a fearsome man. He matched his daughter back to school and threw a fit. He was disappointed by his daughter, but his church disappointed him a bit more. They accepted her back to school, and made her a pariah. As if her pregnancy was contagious. I think the only reason they let her back in was because my granddad was generous in contributing to the church’s coffers. Even God and his forgiveness had a price then, and he was a lot cheaper than Judas’ and his 30 pieces of silver.
The room mama was put up in was dreary, dark and constantly cold. It was no place for an expectant mother. The only good thing about it was it was next to the junior staff quarters. Which is just my fancy way of saying, the hovels, and shady mabati rooms subordinate staff lived in. The closest house to hers belonged to one of the school janitors. She liked my mama. And she would for the months she stayed there invite mum over to her house for tea. It was the black soulless tea. Without milk. The sugar struggling to remain visible amidst the ocean of water and tea leaves. Yet, mama says she has never tasted better tea anywhere else. Those visits to a shanty mabati house saved her from depression. The old janitor, with a knack for cleaning toilets gave my mum her first baby gift. It was an old shawl that had more colors than the hair of Modern day rappers. It meant everything to her. And when her water broke, in the middle of the night. It was the old janitor, who rushed out to get help. You must understand, her campus was kilometers away from any hospital of note. Vehicles then were a luxury somewhat similar to humility in our age. But that old janitor somehow, got mum to hospital. The kindness of a stranger saved us.
After giving birth, my mother had to get us home. My mum’s pregnancy had made her a pariah even in her hometown. So there were no eager aunties to help her carry the baby home. It was her and granddad. The old man helped her walk out of the hospital. Him carrying the clothes, while she carried the baby. As they were walking to the matatu stage one of those dusty ruggedy bus conductors ran up to her. You know the type that look like they are half mad. Hair that hasn’t seen a comb in years and skin that had a hate – hate relationship with water. He carried the bag for her and somehow got her the front seat in the rackety matatus that plied the route home. The front seat just next to the driver was the most luxurious. Saving one from the indignity of being crushed next to the 10 other passengers in the back. He smiled at her as they left, and told her she had given birth to a king. I am not too sure if that was him speaking or the alcohol. But my mum insists those words pulled her from the brink of depression. The toothy grin from an unappealing conductor, the secret antidote to her feeling of helplessness. The kindness of a stranger.
Grandpa took care of us in those early days. He even, as mama says, may have changed a nappy or two….accidentally of course. Men of his age were not expected to change diapers. Now diapers in those days were a luxury reserved only for the rich. The rest of us used white towel-like clothes. Wrapped a baby’s bum, the did pretty much what a diaper does. The only drawback being that you would on a daily basis get very, very intimate with the baby’s shit! I think that’s why our mothers loved us so. You cannot deal with someone’s fecal matter for years and not develop some serious affection for them. Perhaps, I should suggest that to my next girlfriend.
Grandpa would die some days after I got to 15 years. The old man died like he lived, unapologetically. We found him on the sofa in the morning. A glass of bourbon in one hand and a burned out cigarette on the other. The crucifix on his neck looking at his alcohol in disgust. I pitied the angels who welcomed him to heaven, they had a lot of work to do. A year earlier, my mum had met a stunning gentleman. He was shy, mama refuses to let me mention him anywhere. We will call him Kiprono. Kip’ my mother says loved her. Not in the loud declare it to the world type of way. No, his way was quiet, the sort of person to look after your kid when your boss asks you to come in on a Saturday. He would in the weeks that followed meeting us change everything for her. He got her a good job in those companies where bosses thank you for showing up to work. As if you have a choice. She would have married him she tells me, if he did not have a wife. Instead, Kip’ left as silently as he came into her life. She last heard that he was in Europe. In one of those countries whose names should you pronounce them quickly would result in your tongue getting a concussion. She misses him sometimes, even after finding out about his other family. She tells me every man is allowed a bit of darkness, that was his. The last time he talked to her he said sorry. He hoped he had been good to her.
We hit a bump, and the man on my shoulder startles a bit. He wakes up looks at me smiles, and goes back to my shoulder to sleep on. As if he is entitled to sleep there. I am tempted to shoo him away. But I remember my mother, and the reason I am here. The kindness of strangers. Perhaps the next time I hear that song on the radio, the answer will come to me a little more readily. What if God was one of us? God would let a stranger drool on his shoulder.
It is the kindness of strangers.
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