Hey guys! How’s it going? You good? You all right? Awesome! Okay this is probably an awkward level of psych for a random blog post, but trust me, you’re going to need it.
This post, is about to get real.
A while ago I found myself on a matatu* ride home when I heard the most enlightening conversation between a man and the youngest of his three sons.
*(Swahili slang for Public Transport)
It was late on a hot afternoon when I stepped into a small, partially filled 14 seater matatu that had, over the course of the day, turned into a solar-powered microwave on wheels. Always a wonderful way to travel… As soon as I ducked under the tight entrance, I quickly shuffled into my favorite spot; the stiff and, as always, dirty single seat behind the conductor and by the window on the left of the vehicle. For those of you a little baffled by my depiction of public transport… Welcome to Nairobi.
The mat I got into was my last connection before home, and I had to impatiently wait for it to fill up. It was so hot I actually had to make an effort to keep my hand away from direct sunlight. So much for getting a window seat… I craned my neck down so my glasses could focus on the grimy back streets of Nairobi known as Bus Station. Dazed by the heat, I lazily watched as the conductor loudly called out for more customers to fill up the mat.
It was at about this point that the man walked into the mat, guiding his youngest son of about 5 years before him and followed by the two other older ones, probably around 8 and 10. The man looked about 30 and had the slim frame and stature of an average man his age. He took the remaining two of the three rear seats directly behind me with his 8-year-old son on his left by the window, and himself in the center seat with his 5-year-old on his lap. The eldest of the three children remained on the small walkway that fed the seats. Separated from the rest, he stood beside two men who had already occupied two seats on the row before me to my right, opposite the conductor.
Now before anyone scolds me for not graciously giving up my favorite spot for the young boy, I have to mention that 14 seater mat’s are quite small (ahem, see above picture). There was literally no way I could stand for the rest of the trip. Without even counting the fact that my stop was kilometers away, it’s pretty clear that the act of charity would soon turn to one of absurdity.
Anyway, thankfully the mat was now full and fresh breezes of air blew in as it sped toward its passengers’ various stops. Even more thankfully I remembered to carry something to read. Most times the ride can be dreadfully boring and leave you feeling like you have something close to oats for a brain. My book for the month was In the Fog of the Seasons’ End by Alex la Guma. An interesting book, but a little dark seeing as it covers South Africa’s apartheid era (here’s what I thought about it).
Some time passed by as we rolled out of town onto the main highway. Just as we hit the highway, I heard the man speak to his youngest son on his lap. For some strange reason, I thought to lower my book and passively listen in. Even more strangely, I’m glad I did. This is what I heard him say:
Kijana… Mwanaume halalangi.
(Young man… A man does not sleep.)
Anaenda kutafu…? Kutafuta.
(He goes to hus…? To hustle.)
Ukilala, nitakula hio sweet yako. Unataka nikule hio sweet yako?
(If you sleep, I will eat your piece of candy. Do you want me to eat your candy?)
Mwanaume halalangi. Ukilala lala, si utakua mwanaume mbaya?
(A man does not sleep. If you sleep too much, won’t you will be a useless man?)
At first, I guess it really was just a simple conversation. If you’ve ever had to take care of a younger sibling, or at least anyone 5 and below, it’s easy to guess that the man simply wanted to keep his son awake. To have to rouse his son at the next stop, squeeze himself out of the rearmost seat, and simultaneously hustle his other two kids out of the mat, was definitely a feat he would want to avoid in this faced paced Nairobi. The piece of candy was probably a cheap, enticing reward they picked up from a street vendor on their day’s journey. But somehow, I saw more in his words.
When the man spoke, I imagined that what he was really trying to do was explain to his son the life he was born into. And like a true African, he explained it through one big metaphor.
To my eyes, I doubted the man came from anywhere above the lower middle class, a place in life where sleeping in could mean you didn’t make rent, water, power, or fees for your kids. A place where opportunity is a gift from heaven, and all a man can do for his family is keep looking, and keep hustling. Even if opportunity did fall on your lap, neatly wrapped like a piece of candy, it could easily be lost if you didn’t keep up the struggle.
This was the life his sons were destined for, and it seemed that the innocent piece of candy was the only way for the man to put it to his youngest.
I spend a lot of my time looking for inspiration. To write, draw, play basketball, and how to live generally. But matatu rides aren’t my favorite place to do it… They’re not exactly the thought-provoking, awe-inspiring and deep thinking bus rides you see in the movies. They’re tight, dirty, sweaty, bumpy, sometimes smelly (eww), and they bring you A LOT closer to random people than you’d probably like. But I guess you can learn more about life in a minute from those random people, than from anyone else in your entire life.
The man’s story may not be the greatest of ‘life’s teachings’, but it did get me thinking. I started to wonder whether the 5-year-old boy would grow up and work as hard as his father knew he could, whether the 8-year-old son who sat beside the pair was wise enough to understand his father’s words, or whether the 10-year-old son who stood in front of me, staring outside the window, had already heard these words before and was staring not just at the road before us, but at the life before him and planning to spend his every waking moment trying to be a ‘useful’ man to society, his family, and, his father.
Before I could drown myself in more questions about life, the universe and everything in it, I snapped out of my phase when the familiar scenery outside the window told me we were quickly approaching my stop.
A minute later, the mat slowed to a halt and I squeezed myself through the tiny isle to exit the vehicle. As I watched it speed off again, I was somehow glad that my favorite spot was now open for the eldest son who was standing in front of me.
That was one ride I would never forget.