[Photo credit: Lee Morgan]
Hip hop music blasted from the Kenwood and Pioneer speakers aimed at the passengers’ faces on the matatu (bus) ride from tiny Kamulu to the big city of Nairobi. Including the three members of my family, there were exactly three mzungus (white people) on the bus, and if we weren’t conspicuous enough, I fell into a lady’s lap as I boarded when the matatu unexpectedly (to me) lurched forward. It turns out that my ability to make an impression transcends national borders.
Jackton, our friend and guide, warned us that it would be noisy, but I was still unprepared. As DJ Simple Simon dropped the beats featuring the best in East African hip hop, an even louder horn consistently announced our presence to potential passengers. Either that, or there was a Kenyan soccer fan on the roof with a turbo-powered vuvuzela, which would not have surprised me.
I learned that the young man dangling off the side of the matatu was the “conductor” who was responsible for picking up and dropping off passengers by yelling and banging on the side of the bus with his free hand. Our conductor wore black Nike flights, a navy blue trench coat, and a brown flat-billed cap with a bright yellow sticker on the bill. In California, I would have guessed he was from South Central, but we were most definitely in Kenya.
The matatu was named “The Inspector,” and as the kids like to say, it was dope. The interior walls surrounding the aforementioned speakers were decorated with PR shots of the popular artists, and the ceiling was royal blue with white stars and had colorful Converse sneakers glued to the ceiling upside down. The best feature, however, was the countless numbers of passengers that came and went all along the route. After my graceful entrance, we had seats for the hour or so journey, but at times there were so many people on board that I made it to second base with multiple Kenyans without having to move a muscle.
It was quite a ride.
At one point my wife noticed that DJ Simple Simon offered a remix of a Taylor Swift song, a jarringly strange occurrence, and when we heard that Mr. Simon would appear in a Labor Day showdown at a club in Pomona, California, I no longer knew which planet I was on. While my first matatu ride powerfully engaged every one of my senses, I particularly sensed that the world is a fascinating place, at times vast beyond imagination, and at times so tiny that our connections are undeniable.
Two of the three mzungus on The Inspector that day are now back in California, but the third, our youngest daughter, remains in Kenya for a summer internship. Tomorrow is her birthday, and she seems so far away right now. But I know that in certain and important ways she isn’t far away at all— and that she is with Kenyan friends she considers members of her family. I hope she has the best birthday ever.