“There is no passion to be found playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one your capable of living.”-Denzel Washington
This is madness.
Nairobi’s streets at 2:30 in the morning are grim. Huge piles of garbage line the streets. The smell of raw sewage is truly foul. Small piles of trash burn in the middle of each intersection, and give the city’s eerie darkness a post-apocalyptic type feel.
Most of the dangling street lamps don’t work and with the exception of the light that’s coming from the dim headlights of the taxi I’m riding in, it’s pitch black out there.
Just a few days ago the Somalian based terrorist group Al-Shabaab gunned down 147 unarmed students at Garissa University College and the statement they released after the attack won’t stop cycling through my head.
Kenyan cities will run red with blood.
I’m in one of those cities – a suburb of Nairobi called Eastleigh. Its nickname is “Little Mogadishu” as it’s inhabited mostly by Somali immigrants. Since 2012 this neighborhood has experienced several attacks linked to Al-Shabaab. Most of the buildings that surround our taxi are crumbling, some looking bomb-blasted. One attack blew up a bus like the one I’m about to get on – the grenade blast killed six people in 2014. There are only a handful of people walking the streets at this hour. They look as tough as you’d expect.
The taxi driver I’ve hired, who assured me he knew where the bus station was, can’t find any of the streets he’s looking for.
He slows the car without looking at me, and then pulls it over and rolls the window down. A stranger emerges from the shadows. This is exactly how Western tourists end up on the news.
The driver asks him a question in Swahili – directions, I surmise. No joy. They both look confused.
This is probably the most dangerous thing I could be doing with my time here. Crime in Nairobi has been on the rise so much lately that its nickname is “Nairobbery”. I heard a terrible story at the last hotel I stayed at: the day before I arrived a man around my age was waiting for a taxi on the street corner and a car full of masked men pulled along side him. They forced him to the ground at gunpoint and stole everything, right down to his passport and the clothes on his back.
To my relief, off we go again. A few minutes later, still no bus station . . . so my driver pulls over and we repeat the same hair-raising process. It feels like a matter of time before we’re car-jacked.
A homeless man helps us out, pointing down the street and counting up from zero. He’s telling us it’s the tenth street on the left. Driving away, the driver regains his confidence and tries his best to reassure me, “It’s very safe, nothing to worry about.” We both know he is lying.
We count the streets out loud as we pass. We have to – there are no street signs.
Tenth street. Left turn.
At the end of the block I see a long white bus. My blood pressure spikes. This is it – we’ve arrived, I was almost hoping we wouldn’t. Our car creeps around huge potholes.
“Moyale Liner,” says the side of the bus.
This bus, the one that I am supposed to board in thirty minutes, has to pass through the part of Northern Kenya that has recently become a known target for Al-Shabaab. And as they showed the world again early this week, they are ruthless and they often target buses just like this one. They cross the Somali-Kenyan border to kill civilians. That’s the pattern.
As we pull even closer, I see the bus appears to be riddled with bullet holes. My taxi driver pulls along side the bus. I wish we were good friends. I wish he could tell me a funny story or reassure me that all this is routine, no sweat. Unfortunately, the only thing he has to say is how much I owe him.
“I’ll be right back, wait here”, I say.
I leave my bags in the taxi so I can inspect the bus a little closer. The “bullet holes” are stickers of oddly-shaped stars. It’s an appalling choice of decal, considering where this bus is headed.
I circle the vehicle, looking for someone in charge. There’s a group of Ethiopians wrapped in blankets drinking camel-milk tea. By their side, a homeless teenage boy sleeps on the sidewalk. He is using newspapers as blankets and his lone shoe is his pillow.
“Does anyone work here?”
No one blinks. No one responds to my question. No one seems to care.
I run back to the taxi and ask the driver if he can wait for me, or if I can wait inside the taxi with him. He points to his watch and says, “I have to be at the airport to pick someone up in a few minutes, sorry, but I must leave right now.” I offer him more money to stay, but he has to go. He hands me my duffel bag through the window.
As he pulls away I watch his taillights soften and disappear into the wasteland like night.
Behind me, someone appears in the doorway of bus. He’s a dark man with a long black beard; his once white t-shirt and tan cargo pants are filthy. He waves over the group of Ethiopians that were drinking tea a minute ago and begins collecting their tickets. I walk over and ask him, “Is this bus safe, do you think it will make it to Moyale without being attacked? I heard that the bus has two armed guards on it, is that true?”
He can’t understand a word I say, and neither can anyone else – everyone here only speaks Arabic. He shrugs his shoulders.
Kenyan cities will run red with blood.
People push past me to board the bus. No one is smiling, no one is cheerful, and no one looks like they are going to enjoy the long road ahead. It’s a nerve jangling fifteen-hour bus ride to the border, and from what I’ve been told a good portion of that is on unpaved roads.
I need to collect my thoughts. But I’m out of time. The man collecting tickets has zero patience for me and he motions for my ticket. I pull it out of my pocket and look at it, it says boarding time, 3:00 AM – the same time that’s on my watch.
There isn’t going to be some miraculous sign this time – I’m going to have to figure this one out on my own.
The man collecting tickets officially loses his patience with me and angrily waves his hands for mine. Decision time.
Inside, I’m at war with myself.
Soul: Ok, you ready? Its time for you to hand over your ticket. No decision to be made. We’re doing this.
Mind: Are you insane? Do you want to die? Let’s just go back to the hotel and go back to bed, and work something else out in the morning.
Body: I couldn’t hand it over even if I wanted to; my arms are frozen in fear. Although if we decided to go find a taxi, I reckon I’d be up for a walk…
Soul: Guys! Seriously? Come on. You already know that we can’t go back. You already know that since we’ve decided to keep moving. Or are you forgetting that decision? Where’s that sense of incredible purpose you were bragging to yourself about a few days ago? Enough. Get moving.
My hand shakes as I hand over my ticket. My duffel bag is immediately dropped into an empty potato sack and then tied shut with a rope. The man mumbles, “Dusty road”. (He does know English!)
Before I step on, I rest my hand on the windshield and say a quiet prayer.
Please let everyone on this bus arrive in Moyale safely. Please get us there in one piece. And please don’t let my journey end like this.
And then I step on board the bus – and my fate is sealed.