Partick Ambani Photography 2O

On Strange tides

16th January2008,

The Bus arrives at Busia at five in the evening. Busia Border Town is always a mad town. Chaos reign supreme in the dusty Town. Pink clad ‘bodaboda’ men racing with their decorated bicycles hooting endlessly, women dangling Pineapples and Bananas on your face, huge Cargo Trucks snaking through the pot-holes ridden roads unsure, resulting in a messy grid lock, and the passenger buses are always in a hurry. The Kikuyu traders have never stopped peddling house ware neither have the ‘waria’ with their gold coated chains, and there is always a loud funeral procession which must parade round town-twice.

The Town is uneasily calm, almost deserted which is highly unusual, impossible. I peep through the window just to be sure we are in the right place; this bus company is notorious for changing travel route. The “Welcome to Busia Kenya Town’ signboard reassures me, but my nerves will not quit. Something is amiss. The streets are dotted with puddles of ash with fizzling smoke, half burned tires along the road, and stones-huge stones block the usually busy highway. We are not alone.Several buses slowly follow cautiously, stuck at the man-made stones dead end,the convoy halts. I panic.

“Its chaos everywhere,where do we run to, may the lord forgive us” the lady with white turban starts,

She was right, our journey had been marked with such scenes; burned buildings in Mai Mahiu,demolished Homesteads in Elburgon, desperate Human convoys leaving Kericho,army trucks with wailing babies and Naivasha-Tarmac Rivers of blood.

The driver alights and convenes an impromptu meeting with the other bus drivers. From their facial expressions I fear the verdict will not be in our favor. I am right for minutes later he comes back with the verdict,

“All of you, you must alight the bus know, there is a riot in this town and I will not risk the company bus, get out, Now”

A riot breaks out inside the bus. Passengers vent out on the driver who refuses to bulge. They are angry. They are even more scared. One man has to be restrained back to his sit after pouncing on the driver with several kicks and blows. I want to go home. Home to my mama. I don’t want to be here.

“If we pray it shall be well, let us pray, our fathers who is art in heaven…” the lady with the white turban continues

No one listens to her,everyone is shouting, making demands, no one is listening to the bulky man seated at the last aisle,

“Look, a mob with crude weapons approaching the last bus, look…”

It takes a minute for his warning to sink in, suddenly there a cry, a sharp blood chilling cry from a passenger in the bus under siege. It prompts a scuffle in our bus as everyone rushes for the door. My feet freeze over. I cannot move. I want to run. I cannot run. There is a woman with a baby strapped on her back, she squeezes through the window. She falls outside, back first. A firm hand takes mine and drags me, my shoe falls off, I want to pick it, I don’t.

Am outside the bus,running away like everyone else – away from the buses. There are people running after us, I turn to catch a glimpse of the sudden past, the crying woman is curled up on the ground, her hands tucked on her chest, I can see her bare thighs and why is her dress torn?

“Tukimbie Uganda” a man shouts,

Suddenly, there is new resolve and everyone runs in one direction, the Ugandan flag flying proudly at a distance has never looked so promising and inviting.

“Haki Yetu! Haki Yetu!”the crowd on hot pursuit barks,

I miss a flying stone,the bulky man in front of me is not so lucky. I do not stop, for fear and panic drives me.

“Why did we vote, if I known I would have burned my voters card” a stranger pants on,

The air is filled with the smell of burning tires from the now deserted buses, and then there is an explosion. Tear gas canisters land on our path, we cannot see neither can we run. We are sandwiched between armed officers who block our path to freedom and crude armed demonstrators who seethe with wild anger. There is no reasoning with officers who think that we too, are demonstrating. They bless our eyes with more teargas, there is no more distinction between the passengers and the demonstrators, we are one people under fire.

With temporarily blindness  and throbbing feet, I limp to Akamba bus Offices located a Javelin throw away from the Busia Border. I fall flat on the verandah behind the offices, and cry my heart out, I feel safe now. Nobody can harm me in the presence of Allah-my only hope now. The verandah served as a prayer mosque for Muslims in the area,I had discovered the place in my previous sojourn from Uganda where I had contracted a deathly bout of malaria, and a Imam  had offered me rest at the verandah and cold Afia juice.

Twenty minutes later there is a sense of calm. I limp out and peep to survey my chances of making a dash to the border point. There is a crowd on its knees with hands raised to the heavens, surrounded by armed officers. There are other men and women being hurled into a police truck. I recognize most of them, Fellow passengers in the ill fated bus including the prayerful woman.

“Nyinyi Ndio munaleta fujo, nilazima mufike kotini, wajinga Nyinyi”the officer restraining the mean looking dog shouts,

My hopes dwindle and hopelessness knocks confidently. I slide to the floor. I want to cry. I will not cry. I reach for my bag which has nothing but my Identity Card, My Passport and money is in the bus, with the rest of the luggage. Darkness sets in, the officers dictate calm in the town, a wild cat snuggles warmly next to me, and I envy it.

A soft pat on the back wakes me, I rise to face my assailant but there is no need. It’s him, waiswa. I met ‘swa’ at the Busia Border two years ago, it was my first time to travel Uganda. I arrived at the border on board an Akamba Bus, scared to the bone. Everybody was rushing to get their passport verified and I could not keep up. I did not know what to do or whereto go. The police men did not look friendly-they never have. The racing motor bike startled me and I crushed in a puddle of mud. I struggled to rise. I fell again.He reached out and assisted me from my shame.

“My- name –waiswa or ‘swa’-me from Uganda-Iganga” He stammered,

He took my hand and helped me get my passport verified on both the Kenya and Uganda Immigration offices. He bought water for ‘chikumi’ and cleaned my soggy shoes. It was waiswa who introduced me to the Uganda Currency,how to determine the exchange rate and to test whether it was fake or not – all in ten minutes. Every time I went through the Busia Border, I had to look for my ‘mukwano wange swa’ .I was his English Teacher and He was what you wanted him to be; Waiswa the boda boda man kare! Waiswa the mobile bank kare! Waiswa the luggage potter kare!

“You- coming today-message said-you coming today-me I look for you-me see your bus…” He stammers,

I have never been happier. We wait for the officers to leave, under the cover of darkness, I siton his bicycle, clutching my bag desperately-he has given me two Hundred Kenya shillings and a warm jacket, we ride to the Busia border.

“Huyu Mtoto yangu anaenda shule Kampala” he convinces the Officer manning the Uganda entrance gate. Waiswa knows everybody and everybody knows waiswa.

He lets me in. The Uganda flag towers reassuringly. I am safe.

“Anna look up” ‘swa’ points at the Kenya flag flying above the Kenyan Immigration Office,

“The flag- still up- flying high – high- Kenya big – Kenya beautiful, Kenya not go down -not now-not tomorrow!

I want to run back, hug him and call him father but I have to go. I will be back.

Mwisho Jinja, Bana kenya unaenda Jinja” the conductor enquires “Sina pesa ya Uganda” I tell him,

He quickly disregards me and turns to shut the door, “wait,acha yeye akuje”

I don’t know her, but she invites me to sit next to her, pays for my bus fare and shares her roast bananas with me. It begins to drizzle. My eyes drizzle even harder. She gently holds me. I fall on her chest and sleep.

Ambani Photography

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