The Manyanga

Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once, space exists so that everything doesn’t happen to you. - anonymous

A Story by Todd Pitman

Don’t ever walk through Nairobi at night. That’s what they tell you. You might get shot. You might get mugged. You might get accosted, accused, bamboozled, beguiled, harassed, harangued, tricked, cheated, robbed, raped, pestered, pulverized, pick-pocketed, victimized, beaten-up, cut-up, or worse.

Hey, that’s what they tell you. So we didn’t.

The other night, me and a friend went down to the local pub to grab a few beers. Afterwards, we’re trying to get back home, which is only three or four blocks - a 10 minute walk. Problem is, it’s dark. If it’s dark, you don’t walk. No, not in Nairobi. You can’t walk. Cats are looking for you: thieves, beggars, crazies, rapists, murderers, gangsters, gravediggers. Watching, waiting, hiding - searching for you. You work? Hey, they work too. That's what they tell you.

In Nairobi, public transportation is colored by the Manyanga: a brightly painted, oversized, customized cross between a van and a bus with a driver and a tout and a radio playing music with the base up so loud your esophagus will shake. They have names like "Shaq", "Somtin’ 4 da Honeez", and "Internet." Some are rusted out. Some have parts missing. Some are crooked and bent so far sideways they look like they’re in italics.

It’s late, but the buses are still running; we see them going the other way to prove it. My friend, he wants to walk. He’s new here. He doesn’t know; he hasn’t heard. I try to explain the situation to him, and we debate the options, of which there are three: walk, bus, taxi.

As we stood debating, fate arrived: this pulsating, neon-blue Manyanga pulls up on the curb where we are standing with a tremendously, unbelievably over-stuffed chunk of humanity on board. I have never, ever seen so many people on or in one of these in my life. There are arms and heads and elbows sticking out of every spare space, crevice and opening. The faces of the people inside are crushed - literally crushed - against the window glass with such pressure that they are squeezed into an intricate collection of dazed caricatures. There are people in it, on it, under it, around it, hanging off the side of it. I think I even saw feet sticking out somewhere. It reminds me of one of those concentration camp pictures: a mass of cadavers thrown carelessly on top of one another in a pile, the arms and legs extending outward unnaturally.

You know me, though. You know how I feel about traveling in these things. I can’t. I won’t. I don’t.

But I did.

I spoke involuntarily: "Hey, let’s just hop on."

I rationalized as we boarded the steps. "It’s only three stops."

I defended my choice as the tout patted me on the back: "We’ll be at this door the whole time. It’ll just be a couple minutes."

The tout nodded. My friend shook his head. "Hey," I said, "it’s safer than walking."

As soon as we get on, I can feel the overwhelming, claustrophobic crush of bodies and skin and breath and sweat. The air on board, what little there is of it, is stale and humid. I pause momentarily, trying to decide which route to take inside. There is nowhere to go.

Noticing my hesitation, the tout juts an open palm into my back. Now he is barking orders in Kiswahili: "songa, songa" - "squeeze, squeeze." Then I feel it: a slow, massive crush propels me backwards down the aisle. I’m getting pushed, crammed, jammed, shoved and stuffed backwards. That I or any of my
fellow occupants can move at all is difficult for me to believe. Hell, I can’t even breathe. We’re packed in so tightly I can feel the veins popping in my neck. A sharp chill of panic sweeps through me, and I make a push forward towards the exit - the only way out - but I can’t move. Astonishingly, through the window, I can see still more passengers getting on. It’s all in slow motion now. I am drowning. I feel weak. I struggle to maintain. Then the mammoth blue tin can in which we are crammed begins to move.

The Manyanga is lurching up the street now, indelicately circumventing the potholes torn in the tarmac below us. First left, then right. With each turn the total weight of every person packed on board is displaced against me, crushing me, momentarily cutting off my circulation.

Then I think its our stop. I motion (with eyes only) to my friend that this is it - we need to get the fuck off. He’s in a much better position to do this than me (crammed frontwards, on one leg, at an angle - but with a fortunate proximity to the door). I reach up a weak hand to the greasy, sweat-covered bar above me and pull forward with all my might. There is no room to move, no empty space anywhere, but the dense mass of bodies somehow contorts itself and gives way. I am squeezed gradually through it towards the exit.

My first glimpse through the doorway of the wide-open expanse of space outside makes me intensely anxious to disembark this hideous bus. I try to get off, but the tout wants money first. I’m astounded. I can barely move, much less reach in my pocket to extract proper change. I tell him as much, but he says "No" again and forcibly blocks my way. In the confusion, my friend, who is already off and free, pays the fare. I am released.

I step down into the crisp, fresh, night air and feel the wet grass curl under my feet. I take a deep breath.

Then I reach in my pocket to grab that 500 shilling note I had just stuffed there, moments before, in the relative safety of the curb. I look up as the neon-blue behemoth is barrelling away, music blaring, exhaust smoke trailing, arms dangling. I stand there muttering, cursing, looking at the blur of crushed caricatures receding in the darkness.

Don’t ever walk through Nairobi at night. That’s what they tell you.

And then I realize we have only gone one stop.

Copyright 1997 Todd Pitman. All rights reserved.

Note: The origin of the picture at the top of this story is unknown. I found it in a box of my old African photos, but I don't remember taking it. I checked with several friends who were with me when I first traveled to Africa _ to Kenya _ in 1993. None of them could identify it.