BY FLORENCE BETT
The boda guy whose bike I’m riding imagines we’re two lovers skipping town. He isn’t my regular guy, Steve, he’s just some guy I happened to find leaning against his bike at the roundabout.
He’s a bit cocky, to tell you the truth, like a man who was once a gang leader or some position of criminal influence but has since fallen from grace and is now picking up the pieces in this dead-end unexciting suburban job. He has a silver chain peeking from around his neck and a leather jacket so shiny I have to cover my eyes from the glare. He’s as raw-boned as a man that knows how to pack a pistol. As I approach him, I catch the whiff of a bad boy.
“Niaje, boss?” I say, as I nod in that street style I’ve perfected. “Parklands ngapi?”
It’s Wednesday, 4.30PM. I am on my way to Parklands for a quick after-hours interview. The guy I’m going to meet, I’ve been chasing him for about a week now, I even had to take a breather over the weekend before picking up the pursuit on Monday. I left him two missed calls early that Monday and he returned them at the end of the day. After reintroducing myself for the umpteenth time and telling him why I wanted to see him, he only said, “Fine. Call me tomorrow then we’ll plan for it.” He hang up before I could ask him why we couldn’t just meet on that Tuesday. I texted him telling him so but it went unanswered.
To be honest with you, I was getting tired of playing this cat and mouse game with him, but it was too late in the day to find his replacement so I gathered my patience and kept playing.
I called him Tuesday and it was the same drivel of “Call me tomorrow we’ll see”. Early on this Wednesday, I call him again and he says, “Fine. Call me at 3PM.”
I call back at 3PM and reach his PA. “Look,” I say, through gritted teeth, “I know I shouldn’t be telling you this but I need to see him today because I’m on deadline here. Please. Can you please slot me into his schedule this evening? Please?”
She senses the power shift and I can hear her smiling into the phone. “OK,” she says, after some silence, “be here by 5PM so you can see him for 30 minutes because he has another meeting at 5.15PM.”
That math doesn’t even make sense – was this his PA or his niece in high school that’s taking a job during school holidays? And kwani how important is this guy he has meetings scheduled back to back like that? What if someone (ahem) doesn’t keep time? (I’d later learn just how important he is. So important and so pleasant I forgave him for brushing me off all week.)
“Thank you so much!” I say to the PA. “I’ll be there by 5PM. What was your name again?”
This Wednesday was the deadline and I’ve already missed the first call for copy. What makes it the worse it that Nanny Viv is away on her leave, this means that after I’ve put Muna to sleep at 9PM, I’ll maybe take power nap then wake in the middle of the night to write the story to completion and send it in before dawn. This is the life of a writer. Or a mum. Or a writer mum on deadline whose Help is away, I’m not sure.
After the PA confirms, I call GB and tell him to make his way home from jobo so he can stay with Muna. He mumbles something about me making last minute changes to his plans before he says sawa. He arrives 15 minutes later. I get out of the digs with Muna and before he’s parked, ask him to drop me at the roundabout to find a boda because Steve is mteja.
“Parklands mia tatu,” the boda guy says.
I don’t have the energy or the time to bargain that 300 bob. Also, GB recently told me that I have a face for being overcharged. Folk see me my milky face then I open my mouth to speak and they just decide to up their charges by an extra 50, 60 per cent simply because of my urban demeanour. I laughed him off.
I say to the boda guy, “Mia tatu ni sawa.”
I turn back to Muna and GB in the moti then I wave them off. I want them to leave before they see me mounting another man’s bike. (That’s not a metaphor, you Sicko. Hehhe.)
I wait until the moti is out of sight then I ready myself for the boda ride: I take off my glasses and put them in my bag, sling my camera bag across my chest and place my bag at the fore of my seat, where the boda’s behind will be. I want it to separate us because that contact is just awkward, man, that constant rubbing motion of body against body isn’t what you want to be the definitive experience of your boda ride.
I step on the bar above the exhaust pipe and hoist myself onto the passenger seat in one swift motion.
Anyone watching me make that final move can tell that I’m used to this.
Bodas are my thing because I’m horrible at keeping time. I know, it’s completely unacceptable, I know. For all my planning and my organization, I always underestimate how long it’ll to get myself ready and out of the digs into Nairobi traffic, then muscle my way to my destination.
Way back when, I used to blame my tardiness on traffic. That got old. Then I became pregnant and I’d blame it on the pregnancy. That excuse never failed. In fact, when I showed up late to meetings or things, folk would apologise to me for dragging me out all the way out here to meet them. How twisted was that? Hehhe. Then I had a baby and I blamed it on the baby. Now that that baby storo no longer flies, I must learn to keep time.
And I am. Hell, I am. All the times I’ve been able to keep time meant I had to start prepping the night before – I need to lay out my clothes the night before, pack my bag, pre-plate my breakfast of leftovers and work back two hours from the time I need to leave so that I have a window of how long I’ll let my alarm snooze.
All that preparation and orderliness is how time-sticklers roll but it’s honestly tiresome and boring to me. Keeping time is an admirable trait, no doubt, and it shows that you respect your time plus the other person’s time blah blah… Waste your own time, don’t waste everybody else’s… et cetera, et cetera. It’s all good.
However – and I know this sounds very simple-minded and self-serving – there’s an adrenaline rush that comes from being late. Not very late, a bit late. Like by eight or ten minutes. Anything more than 15 minutes and that’s just being a total buffoon. What rush do you get from being on time, hm? Besides, what else would dictate you ride a boda if not being time bad? What else would demand that you call for Steve the boda guy, Steve the boda guy that hangs at the roundabout, instead of calling an Uber?
The boda guy zips up his jacket, straps on his helmet and revs his engine dramatically. He’s such a show-off, hehhe. I wouldn’t be surprised if he revs it then turns to look at me and bites his lower lip. He puts on these shadoz – some knockoff aviator mirrors – that make him look real bad ass. Like Ray Donovan.
“Haiya, boss,” I say. “Tuanze safari.”
We leave the roundabout and get onto the Highway.
Like I mentioned, I’ve been riding bodas for a long time and there are set of Urban Rules you must follow. Indulge me: Always grab the sides of the rider’s jacket, never by his waist. Wear a helmet. Always. And always carry a scarf or kikoy to wrap around your head before you wear those helmets, because they smell like the inside of gym shoes or like a rodent died in there. And, because you don’t know whose head has been there before yours, you shouldn’t open your mouth for too long because you could get a tooth infection or even herpes.
Don’t engage your rider in conversation because it’s pointless and a waste of breath and your lips will crack from the gusts. Don’t let him engage you in conversation either; if he does, be agreeable – simply give him a thumbs up and nod your head then look away before your eyes meet in the rear-view mirror, because he’ll take that as prompt to keep talking into the wind.
Never let him play music from the radio attached to his steering wheel because it’s cheesy and it’s 2017 and you could easily pass for a waged NASA campaigner; if he may, ask him to leave that radio with his shoemaker pal at the roundabout or at the nearest kiosk where he picked you up from.
As you take the ride, poke your ass out because it’ll make you feel sexy and powerful and free. Stick it out as far back as you can because life is short and because it’s OK to allow yourself such futile pleasures every often. Don’t lose balance in this pursuit, though. When you approach a bump, be ready to briefly raise your ass off the seat so you don’t hurt yourself as he navigates them.
Close your eyes and imagine you are in a music video, like ‘Beautiful’, and you’re Mariah Carey and he’s Miguel.
Never let a cop wave you down. Never. It defeats the purpose of saving time, and the likelihood of getting another boda guy when you’re in the middle of traffic is next to low. An extra tip: Boda guys, for some reason, never ride around with too much lose cash in their pockets. You don’t want to be the one to bail him out, that upsets the natural order of the Universe. So never let a cop wave you down.
Don’t let your pals know you took a boda so you could save time. And save face. So don’t let the boda drop you at the entrance or in front of a crowd. If you’re meeting your pals at, say Java Junction, don’t drop at the entrance of Mediterraneo. No, no. Drop off at the back, near the exit into Riara Road, so you can straighten your clothes, check your face for any bird poop that may have flown into your cheeks and put on some lipstick. Then casually walk in to your meeting – unruffled, put together, as fresh as stepping out of the shower – and don’t say too much when they ask about your UberX over.
I’m not having fun riding this boda’s bike. (God, that sounds so gutterish!) For all his bravado, his boda is totally shit – the cushion on my seat is worn out and burrows into my bones, the bike struggles to climb up the hills and pick up speed. It handles like a sewing machine.
It’s about 4.45PM now. The urban populace is shutting down computers and turning out lights and rolling down grills before they lock up and call it a day – the roads are slowly filling up with the weary middle-class, the ones that dutifully carry their share of the burden to fuel this economy. While they walk out through the door, the hands that write the cheques that feed them – the ones that carry another share of the same burden – are jumping up into their parked cars and warming their engines. It’s difficult to accept that these two classes are people in the same team playing for the same win.
Pedestrians have spilled over from the sidewalks onto the road so the boda has to sometimes cut through the throng. I overhear their conversations and most of them are about money.
The sun is approaching the Golden Hour and the horizon is being painted in rich undulating vistas of warm oranges and burned yellows; a palette that suggests wild romance, youthfulness, urban folklore and unspoken secrets.
My kikoy falls gracefully over my back and billows in the wind. I look like a modern-day goddess.
Put all this into the context of the boda’s aviator mirrors and you’ll understand why he imagines we are lovers riding off together into the sunset. He may have winked at me at some point of our ride but I could be mistaken, I don’t have my glasses on so anything I see beyond my bent knees is blurry.
Bodas as a easy solution to urban public transport have a thrill and experience of the city that buses or mats can’t match. Buses feel so Moi, 1991. But they’re more comfortable and you can have your personal space to sit cosy in your chair and read your book, and you’ll easily come off looking like Michelle before she met Barack and became an Obama.
Mats – what can I say? – I don’t know about your route but all the ones in my route look like a ramshackle from the slums. Like some pieces of mabati were hurriedly sewn together with needle and thread, and put on wheels.
There was a time I was riding in one on my way home from tao and it coughed and died. It had sent a warning when we were on the highway but the driver ignored it because, well, because those near-death coughs were usual to him. Until we got off the highway into one of the inner roads and the engine died. Right there in the middle of the road, the engine died and the mat stopped. It looked like some animal in the wild that had been darted with a tranquilizer and was now out cold in the middle of the trail.
I was seated in the line right behind the driver, so the three of us plus the two chicks seated up front had to get out of the mat so that the kangee could check the engine and maybe troubleshoot the bastard back to life.
So we got out, all five of us, and hang by the side of the road. We looked helpless and somewhat brainless, like a herd of goats being ushered out of the boma at dawn and were waiting for direction from the farmer’s wife to be shown where to go next.
It wasn’t amusing. I had luggage because I’d pitiad Ibrahims for some quick milk-and-bread shopping. The guy that was seated next to me was carrying what I can only guess was a very large sack of nails, so he was now balancing it on his torso as it teetered on the edge of the seat. Those nails could poke him at any moment and we’d all watch in horror as he bled to death because this un-roadworthy birdcage was still running the streets.
The two mathes that were seated upfront looked like day bugs on their way back home after a day of doing laundry and beating up dusty rugs. I could tell because their legs were shiny and oily, slathered with Vaseline after being knee deep in detergent.
The chick that was to my far right was some impatient millennial who looked on as the clueless kangee poked about in the engine before she clicked her heels and stomped off for her hostels.
And that kangee was clueless, Jesus, he was. I watched him as he lifted up the two passengers seats upfront to find the engine then he tagged at the wires and loosened and tightened whatever the hell he could. He obviously didn’t know what he was doing or what he was searching for. A homemade bomb may have been lodged between the engine parts and he wouldn’t be able to tell it apart.
So there we were – silent, helpless goats – stuck between this broken-down shell and traffic of urbanites that was now maneuvering around it to drive on the dusty path where we stood. We were huddled together so that they wouldn’t drive over our feet or poke us in the ribs with their side mirrors. Some of them would roll down their windows to peek at what was happening before shaking their heads sympathetically and driving off in their well-oiled and smoothly running machines. Idiots.
After a while, the kangee and driver gave up playing mechanics and called for help. We waited for about half an hour before another empty mat – just as old, less ugly, more hopeful – came from tao and we herded back into our seats to carry on our way.
I’ve never experienced that with a boda.
We’re just about to ride past Diamond Plaza and get to my destination. It’s 4.55PM and I’m dying to get off this boda and wiggle my butt cheeks back to life. The roads in Parklands are narrow, it’s a thin line between the main road and the sidewalks. The throngs have gotten so thick and the boda is taking the bike so slow I may as well get off and walk with them. We kinda look silly actually, me and him, riding a bike amongst strolling pedestrians.
The catch of riding bodas is that folk in traffic may recognize you and be taken aback by the encounter. So on some loose day, one of GB’s colleagues or clients will sight you and call him right away and, rather carefully, ask, “Uhm, hey. Is that… is that your wife I’m seeing on the motorbike in front of my car?”
Turns out today was one of those days.17