Matatu stations are basically bus terminals with very limited rules or regulations. Vehicles come in overflowing with people, their roofs piled high with cargo. They unload and then load up again. Crowds of people jostle on and off, moving between vendors and stores selling everything from oranges and bananas to world maps, car air fresheners, live chickens and clothing. The vehicles belch out black smoke, engines roar, conductors and vendors yell, as vehicles jockey back and forth moving into, between and by spaces that seem impossible to pass through. Somehow it all seems to work.
Most often in Kenya I’m driven places by friends or in a van we rent for the occasion. Sometimes I drive but mostly I’m a passenger. I’ve written on matatus enough to know that if I can avoid it I will. Still, I always like to have other visits experience the matatu station and even go on a short ride. If there are 60 seats there can be 100 people crammed on, occupying every seat, square inch of aisle space, on the roof and hanging out the door and from the ladder.
Market days happen twice a week in Kikima –Tuesdays and Thursdays. On those days the regular stores, stalls and vendors are joined by people from around the region. The market square is crowded with every inch occupied either by sellers or buyers. It is noisy, somewhat chaotic and always brings a smile to my face. This is about more than simply buying and selling. People spent time greeting each other, talking, sharing stories and memories. In a place where some families have lived since the dawn of time there is always history. At most there is two degrees of separation with everybody either knowing or being related to everybody else. Even for me, walking through the market, I can’t go more than a few dozen steps without running into somebody I know, have met, who knows who I am or who is related to Henry or Ruth.
I pictured the excitement, the anticipation of Muchoki and Jata the first time they see a sign on a store that identifies them as being in Kikima. For Muchoki this is tempered by his secret, unspoken fear, that they may have come all this way for nothing. Are the grandparents still alive? Will he welcome them or turn them away?
On one of my first trips to Kikima I was spending time at Kyangoma School. I’d been told that many of the children came to school not only without having eaten any breakfast but that they wouldn’t have any lunch either. They’d spent the whole day trying to learn with hunger gnawing away inside of them.
As we broke for lunch recess a little girl pulled out an orange. It was all that she had. Sitting amongst her friends in a circle she peeled it and handed out the slices, one after another to the girls with her. She saved the final piece for herself, popping it in her mouth. For her – for all of them – this was the only thing they had to eat. I later found out that that little girl hadn’t had breakfast. I felt myself almost staggered by her action. What generosity to give all that she had when she herself needed it so badly.
Time and time I’ve seen this pattern repeated—people who had almost nothing sharing what little they have with those around them. What a contrast with how most of us live our lives. This scene stayed in my head waiting for a place to emerge. It’s now out of my head. I don’t think it will ever be out of my heart.
All along I had a picture of the grandparents being Henry’s parents: gentle, kind, generous in nature, wise and caring. I knew that if a long lost daughter or her children returned they would never turn them away. In fact they have opened the door of their home to grandchildren in need. His recent death saddened me. His legacy remains.
The final scene – him leading them to his home by pulling a piece of string behind him – was in my head from almost the moment I decided I wanted to write this story. It’s the creation myth of the Kamba people shown. It ties in the generations and sums up my story. It’s also about one of the most universal themes in story – finding your home. Isn’t that part of what we’re all really looking for? I wrote this scene. I’ve read it dozens of times now. It still brings a tear to my eye. Muchoki and Jata are finally home and I’m so happy for them.