I had been waiting for that matatu to fill up for about fifteen minutes. I was getting antsy. But there was nowhere else to go; the mats to Westlands from Odeon were too far away for my aching feet and the crowded road there too daunting for my anxiety. Context: a month and a half ago two guys decided that my phone would be better off in their hands and I have been hypervigilant ever since. Story for another day.
The matatus that stop at Graffins in Westlands normally take a while to fill up but not that long. I was seated on the left side, on that single seat right behind the conductor’s seat. Or what, in reality, is the seat the conductor likes to share with one or two or three other passengers depending on the route the matatu plies. I like sitting there for obvious reasons: I like my space. The entire back bench was empty and there was one guy on the double-seat across from me. In front of us were three women, two on the first row and one behind them. The seats next to the driver were both filled.
The longer I sat the more anxious I became. I fidgeted. Crowds make me even more nervous than they did before. By crowds I mean where two or more are gathered in a public space. Traumatic incidences really mess with your mind. Once, in that same spot, right in front of where the un-filling matatu was parked, I had seen a woman take a bottle to the face. Really. She was minding her own business, probably in the middle of running errands. I imagined she worked somewhere in town, maybe in one of those boutiques that sell women’s clothes. I don’t know, she just looked like the women I meet when I’m looking for jeans or shoes in the CBD. She had those eyebrows too, the ones that don’t look so much like a work of art as they do a tedious chore. Drawn on with little effort, little love.
This woman was crossing the road in front of a Graffins matatu when a bottle landed on the side of her face. Some men were in the middle of a scuffle next to the matatus and someone had thrown a beer bottle. The poor lady had the misfortune of interrupting its flight. It broke on her skull and the pieces fell around her feet, covered in her blood. She screamed, she begged the people around to take her to a hospital. Most walked past, stumbling and bumping into each other as they stared at her, sympathetic but aware of the inconvenience of taking on such a responsibility. This city has a way of teaching you that your kindness could easily be the end of you. We walked on, hoping that someone would help her. When I got where I was going, the first thing I did was look up the nearest medical clinic because I couldn’t stop imagining that it was me helpless, alone and bleeding from the face at Koja. If I ever ended up in such a situation I would at least know where to start heading. That precaution ended up being helpful a month and a half ago, over three years later, when I did find myself in such a situation. But again, story for another day.
So I’m in the matatu fidgeting, holding my bag tight, thinking about the lady who got hit by a bottle and reliving bad memories, when this lady and her daughter show up and make to get in. That’s the other reason I like that seat right behind the conductor’s—it’s perfect for people-watching. She was light-skinned, with beautifully-drawn eyebrows (effort was put into it) and envy-inspiring hair (shoulder-length, soft-looking, curly; all the things my hair is not). She looked around 30 and was dressed in all black. She was one of those women who look amazing even when they don’t try. Her daughter was about seven, an estimate I arrived at later when I heard her read words out loud and ask what they meant. Her hair was in pig-tails and she was dressed in trousers, ballet flats, a smile that made me think for a second that I was ready to have a kid, and a crop top.
This wasn’t those crop tops which you wear because they’re cropped just enough for it to look like a crop top but not enough to draw much attention. This was a very cropped crop top. It barely got to her mid-torso. Of course people stared.
I was genuinely surprised because that’s not something I see every day. When I looked up at the people around I found shock, disgust, and some amusement, as expected. Because of course we never stop to think that we are sexualizing children by imposing on them the same standards of modesty that we impose on women. Naturally, most of the hateful looks were directed to the unassuming mother shepherding her child into the matatu and I felt bad for her. But she was unbothered, so I chose to also be unbothered.
I watched the little girl get into the matatu excitedly and choose for herself the seat across the aisle from mine. That was not the seat her mother wanted. As the girl—let’s call her Ava because I think it’s a pretty name and she looked like an Ava—made herself comfortable in her seat, her mother continued to the back bench and sat behind me. As she settled herself and the many bags she was carrying, she called to her daughter to join her. Ava was having none of it.
“Ava, come and sit here with me.”
“But mum I want to sit here.”
“No, come here and sit next to me.”
At this point, another lady was behind Ava, trying to sit where Ava was because she assumed Ava was going to go to her mother. Surprisingly, Ava decided she preferred to sit with the lady rather than go to the back. I was now invested in this bold little girl because that could never be me. Defy my mother so brazenly in public at that age? No thank you, I preferred to live. But Ava had a plan. She weaponized the words ‘please mum’ by saying them over and over again in that high-pitched, drawn-out way that children have so that it sounded too cute to defend yourself against. It worked. “It’s okay, I can sit with her. I don’t mind,” said the nice lady that Ava had decided to sit with. And that was that. Ava sat on the lady’s lap, enjoying her victory. It was short-lived. Her mother decided to issue a warning, just to ensure Ava was fully aware of the consequences of her decision.
“Ava, if you decide to sit there just know that you can’t want to come here when the matatu starts moving. You will have to sit there until we get where we are going.”
This didn’t sit well with Ava and she took some time to weigh her options. Her brow was furrowed and she placed her hand on her chin as though she was deciding the fate of the entire nation. After a long deliberation, she sighed. “Okay then, let me come, mum.” So she went and settled next to her mother behind me, leaving me wondering how well that would have worked out for me with my mother. At 7, Ava had options. Her mother let her make her own decisions. In my head: “Wau. Must be nice.”
As the matatu filled up Ava noticed that out of all the people walking around the stage, she was the only one in a crop top. It was too much to take quietly.
“Mum look! Look outside the window! Nobody else is wearing a crop top!”
“I can see that. You are the only one.”
“Even here there is nobody!” We were now leaving the stage and getting onto the Globe overpass.
“Yes, that’s true. It’s only you.”
“That means that I’m the coolest person and my clothes are the best!”
“Yes, sweetie. You are the coolest person.”
“I can even be in a fashion show!”
“Yes, you can be in a fashion show. Do you want to be a model?”
After a slight hesitation, “I don’t know.”
Here Ava’s interest in the crop top phenomenon came to an abrupt end and she shifted her attention to more important things, like the Star Times billboard that was looming above us and the tall buildings in the CBD. She wished she had a house like that one, she said as she pointed to a building that must have about 20 floors. In the same breath, she also managed to communicate that she believed that that ‘house’ belonged to a princess and that her friend had a bag that had Moana on it. Normally I would be irritated by the noise of a child in public transport but with Ava I was only thoroughly amused. What can I say, her confidence made me happy. And I was no longer fidgeting and clutching my bag like my life depended on it.
She chattered on for the rest of the journey, stopping only to listen to her mother’s calm responses to her endless questions, completely unconcerned with the rest of us. As we joined Ojijo road I became less interested in Ava’s questions and more in awe of her mother’s ability to stay calm and unbothered by her daughter. Not once did she sound impatient or irritated. I tried to imagine myself at Ava’s age, doing what she was doing, with my mother there. Guys. I could not picture it. First because I have no memories of myself being loud and openly curious in a public place. Second because I don’t believe my mother would have let it happen anyway. A single sentence from her would have quickly silenced me and I would be quiet in my seat, awaiting further instructions.
By the time we were approaching Graffins, I was thinking about how we censor children to teach them how to behave around other people. Ava’s mother was interesting to me because of how she handled Ava’s chosen methods of expressing herself. You want to wear a crop top because you like them and think they are cool? Go ahead. It doesn’t matter that most people would call it indecent even on a seven-year-old. That’s their own personal problem. You want to ask two million questions about what you observe on the journey home? Do it without reservation and don’t worry about what people think. Be fearless. In all your seven-year-old glory, be fearless.
I wanted to turn around and talk to Mama Ava. I wanted to ask her how she came to the decision to teach freedom in her parenting, especially in a society like ours where the rules of how children should be dealt with are rigid and well, shame-centred. Respect comes first, always consider what people will think, and never expose your vulnerability or your family’s to outsiders. Let everyone know that we are doing just fine. But here was Ava in complete disregard of all those rules. Actually, not disregard. Ignorance. She didn’t know, so she didn’t care. She hadn’t been taught to be afraid, to feel shame, to sit still and be quiet lest people think she was badly brought up. So there she was, fearless in her freedom.
I didn’t turn to share these thoughts with Mama Ava. Because I hate it when random strangers want to start up a conversation with me on public transport. People are just trying to get home at the end of a long day and you are there disturbing their peace with your unnecessary comments about how this Nairobi of ours has been overrun by hawkers. I wasn’t about to become one of those people so I kept my thoughts to myself and decided that simply being intrigued by Ava was enough. As we got off and we parted ways, she was asking why they didn’t take one of the bigger buses when the bigger buses had more space.
I walked away thinking about being fearless and wondering whether it’s possible for a 22-year-old to find that freedom to just be. Fearless freedom. In its own way, it was freeing to think that it could still be somewhere within me; not erased but simply suppressed. Perhaps I could dig it out, muggings and PTSD symptoms notwithstanding. For the rest of that evening, I felt more at ease walking on my own than I had felt in a month and a half.