The Matatus: A Short Story

Regular Contributor Keya Punja is a second year Liberal Arts student with an interest in photography, writing, and dancing ’til the early hours of the morning. She has also drawn the photo that goes along with this piece.

[Featured image: Artwork featuring a pencil-sketched woman’s face in a somber mood, her hair dark with light spots dotting it]\



The Sunday sunrise woke Mana gently. She lay in bed for a few minutes looking down upon her daughters who were sleeping on the floor. They lay so still and silent, their faces emanating all that she had ever wished for them. In these few moments of peace a tear rolled gently down her cheek. They were not tears of sadness, but rather fulfilment.

She rose quietly so as not to wake her children. She entered her small kitchen with its fire stove and one pot. She started to make the morning porridge – a staple in her household, always deliciously sweet and warm, the food equivalent of a mother’s hug.

Her daughters filtered into the kitchen, sleep still in their eyes and yawns in their mouths, but soon the small space was filled with childish giggling. These were the times that she missed the most when she was away at work.

It was seven and it was time for them to leave for church. Mana packed her bag ready for her trip back into Nairobi. They all left the house and arm in arm walked down the dirt road to church. They all looked sublime in their Sunday best, their white frocks stood out against the red soil like the first flowers of spring.

As they walked they were joined by other families. The girls went ahead together, laughing and joking about those things that only teenagers find joy in. She stayed back and watched her daughters thrive, the immense elation that her heart felt was too strong to be contained, and a smile broke out of her face.

Church was soon over, and thus her journey commenced. She huddled with her daughters outside the bus-stop. In saying her good-byes she tried to stifle her tears, but her words came out thick and heavy. Instead she hugged them tight trying to pass on her courage and strength.

The matatu raced up to the stop spraying them all with dust, their faces all flooded with tears, but the excuse was found in the dust rather than in their sadness. There was no time to waste, and just as quickly as the matatu had arrived it left.

Mana fought her way to the back of the bus, trying desperately not to fall with every movement of the bus on the uneven rural roads. She found a place next to a young woman, not much older than her daughters. The woman was finely clad in her best clothes, her hair freshly braided. This young woman sat with such poise that one could easily have mistaken her for a royal, but her eyes were fixed on the outside world so as not to let anyone know that she was terrified of what lay ahead.

Mana wanted to comfort this poor woman, but there was something about her posture which told Mana that if she touched her she might just shatter into a thousand pieces. And so they sat in silence. The journey was bumpy and dusty, but quiet. All too soon the tranquility was devastated by the jungle of Nairobi. From every direction cars, trucks and matatus fought for a space on the road. Drivers shouted at each other out of windows, some in jest but most in anger, rivalries were constructed on that day, and vendettas are still to be settled.

Soon the matatu was crammed full of all sorts. Men on their way to building sites, women on the way to their office jobs, mothers with their children, women with their wares for market, a man hopped on followed by a goat. All together they made their way to their destinations, some sitting some standing, so close was their proximity, that no-one knew where they ended and another started.

The noise was unbearable, but full of life. Here in this small bus were people who cared about life, who loved it for what it was in the moment, not for what they wished it could be, and Mana was proud to be part of this community. Her grief was forgotten and she too laughed and chatted along with the others.

Soon even the young woman sat next to mana was involved in conversation. She revealed that she was to become an Ayah to an expat family. Her anxiety was felt by many women, especially Mana. They all laughed along with the rattling of the windows and shared their stories of the families they worked for and assured her that she would soon settle in.

As the number on the bus thinned out, Mana found that it was her time too to disembark. She still had a small walk, but this she enjoyed after such a claustrophobic journey. She breathed in the fresh air as she walked to work. The bougainvillea was particularly beautiful at this time of year, and as she walked down the road, she stretched her hand out into the flowers and picked one, she placed it in her tight bun.

She entered through the gates where the family she worked for lived. As she walked up the driveway she was met with two screaming children in their pyjamas, they jumped on her and adorned her with kisses. She teasingly scolded them about being outside in their bed-time attire, they giggled and in excitement spoke about all they had done while she had been away.

They took her hands and led her inside, begging her to put them to bed. Mana was glad to be back with them, and she happily obliged. She took them up to their bed, and once they were calm she started to hum a tune that her mother used to hum to her, on the beat she patted their backs sending them into a slumber.

Through the gap in the curtain Mana could still see a small line of light on the horizon. She thought of her daughters and how it was them who were asleep in her arms just yesterday. Mana counted herself as one of the lucky few who did not have two daughters, but four that loved her unconditionally.

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