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We sat huddled in this bus like a herd of cattle. Thirty three strangers, whose lives take different courses everyday but on this day somehow happened to be on the same journey. The sky looked constipated and let out a sob for its woes and it rained. We were bound for Kitengela. After Dubai, Kitengela is the only desert-like place the human tribe has seen fit to inhabit. Why? Because Kitengela freely scatters its magical dust upon all those who set foot there bringing such fortuitous luck to their lives. Do not question how just go there. Go there and feel the dust. It changes you. For two things, it dyes the colour of your shoes and inspires the maladies in your nose.

We were aboard the four-wheeled but snail-paced Rembo shuttle. It roams gingerly on the road moving slowly like a bride walking down the aisle. Its engine chugs and coughs at the driver’s every stick shift but it can only go so fast. I prefer it for its silence. Trips on Rembo always offer the tranquil of quietness. Unlike most matatus in Kenya it does not boast noisy speakers roaring with music. Or a heckling conductor, hanging at the door by his hands as if pegged on a clothes horse. Seldom do melodramatic travellers board it as well. Its’ often hum and mum which I like.

We are seated so close to one another we can conduct a current. Shoulder to shoulder, you can listen in on the breathing of the person seated beside you. It’s archetypal of Kenyan public transport; cramped.

As for myself, I’m perched on the middle seat right at the back of the vehicle. My knees seem to stretch way into the next row and I have to do my level best to draw them back. They suffer a great deal because in my country being tall and in a matatu is an oxymoron. These cars are not designed with us in mind, the idea of sufficient legroom does not occur to whoever constructs these buses. We are a persecuted minority but what can I do but make do? From the railways station where our ship set sail nothing notable happens. We negotiate three roundabouts, the tout collects his dues, its Saturday so the traffic is meager, motion is uninterrupted and it rains on. The pattering sounds of raindrops lay a soothing rhythm on the roof as I struggle to stay awake.  

At one stop, on the now snaky Mombasa road, probably around the Standard Group offices, one nimble young man alights for another one to come in. ‘Like for like substitution,’  I mull silently.

Only after the conductor shut the door behind him did I then realize it was not a usual passenger who’d slithered in. The heads that were bowed in slumber suddenly looked up. Eyes that were engrossed in phones abruptly acknowledged this man’s presence. Those whose minds wandered away looking at the vistas outside found themselves paying attention to him. So did I, my boredom dwindled as I jostled to sit upright. Even before he said anything, there was a rousing anticipation, a pause as all and sundry seemed to stop for him to do as he pleased. ‘The stage is set, audience eager, take it away sir’ I thought to myself again.

There is nothing new to this man or his kind. Everyone knows what he’s about but he still summons awe like an alien that has just landed on earth. He’s evidently a hawker, an itinerant trader as they are called in business studies. That’s what he is but once he opens his mouth he becomes more than that. Despite the simple goods he sells, he speaks like what he has on sale can save the world, offering tailor-made remedies to such complex problems. He is a snake-oil salesman peddling silver bullets each time he wags his tongue. Simply put, this man talks like he can solve a Pandora’s box.

The Rembo stutters its way back to the highway and he proceeds to weave his craft. I’m all ears. He begins, ‘Kaluma Menthos Plus, sweets na toothbrush….’ That’s his spiel which he’ll go on to repeat innumerable times. At first, he doesn’t elicit any response from passengers and the euphoria surrounding his arrival gradually fizzes out. People begin to look yonder and realize they have better things to do like yawning and snoring again.  He’s at crossroads between making his profits and things coming to a head. It’s a defining moment because if he continues in this ennui the conductor might banish him and off he goes to the gallows. Despite giving off the impression that I couldn’t care less, I’m most intrigued and alert at this point at what he does next. Men on the cusp of tipping the scales on either side have always stirred my interest.

He starts to walk down the aisle as he takes a closer look at potential buyers. The Kaluma pain balm and toothbrushes go for 50 bob each but if you buy both, you get two KSL sweets for your hefty investment. Still, nobody is chuffed enough to splurge a dime on his roadside products. It’s been five minutes past and he hasn’t sold a single item, it’d be wise to let up now but he won’t.  At this rate he’s likely to end up in Kitengela with a parched throat and empty pocket to boot.

For his ingenuity, he changes tack. He fishes out his phone and claims he’s going to call ten people. Ten people who will gush on about what Kaluma has done for their health and well-being.  People scoff at that loudly shaking their heads. Standing in the middle of the aisle, his phone on speaker, at the second ring; the first person he calls picks. It sounds like an old lady, they briefly exchange pleasantries and he eventually asks how well her Kaluma is treating her. She stutters and lulls but he keeps on asking how well her Kaluma is serving her. Till a bulb finally lights up in her head and she says, ‘Ohh I had covid and I applied it on my chest, it eased my breathing, kindly send more of it my way.’ He begs to hang up to attend to others who need his saving grace but promises to get back to her promptly.

My chest is giddy because tall tales tickle me. I wouldn’t be far from accurate to think that it was all a ploy. And these people he was calling were in on it. Easing of Covid breathing problems? Come on, that’s quite a stretch. Two, how long the lady took to catch on what he was asking about, sure her age can be a moot factor but it still raises eyebrows.  I get the possible convenience of conniving with an old lady because for Chrissake what vile person doubts an aging lady? Three and he’d go on to prove me right, most of the people he’d go on to call would be women. Loquacious women whom he’d often have to cut short citing busyness or running out of credit. Not because women are liars but because they can appeal to emotion and are more persuasive when vouching for something. More so, impulse buying, is it not more likely that a woman would make the first purchase in this bus?

Anyway, he’d call three more women and two gentlemen before making his initial sell. You could hedge a bet on who made that first buy. All these people he called sang wild praises of the alchemy of Kaluma. How it fundamentally changed their lives. Before long he had sold to four guys at the front. I started noticing that some people just bought his stuff to wish him away. These were ones whose money was peacefully coerced out of their pockets since they had seen enough of him. His presence irked them and they paid to shoo him away. They succumbed to the tenacity of his selling.

He was ferocious; he approached mothers with toddlers and asked the kids if they wanted sweets, a no brainer. There was a mother who had to buy both the toothbrush and Kaluma just to quiet his wailing son with a pair of sweets.

Then there were others who were completely moved by those he had called. They engaged him in a tête-à-tête and he’d spew his wisdom. What struck me was how all along there wasn’t an inkling of doubt registered on his face. The unwavering conviction and belief with which he plied his trade. He was certain way before anyone in that bus was sure they’d buy anything. He knew that he was bound to make a kill. As such, the rest of us would have to fall in line and buy his stuff because only one goal mattered most and it was his.

Soon after he’d pocket his phone and get busy with making his dough. He was on a roll, money was now quickly exchanging hands and most of it was going his way. By the time he was done, it was merely three of us at the back who had managed not to part with our monies for his toothbrushes and menthol plus.

It was not important that I or other people in the bus had reservations about the calls he made or the approach he used to deplete his stock. He had a playbook, a craft and a set of wiles which he put to use to attain his ends. Many times I was tempted to voice my misgivings concerning those phone calls but I didn’t. I resisted the urge to cast aspersions because of one thing.

His will to survive; to find a means to eat and to live. And crucially his legal pursuit of this will. He merits respect for that.

Granted, assuming he was not being truthful on those calls he made. The questions of right or wrong, moral or immoral are entirely subjective. They are questions that you could wrestle with every single day. But you cannot wrestle with the inevitability of a rumbling stomach on a daily basis. You cannot wrestle the need to survive. Man must eat, man must live.

I admired this guy, I felt like he could offer a masterclass on sales.

As we edged closer to Kitengela, one more thought crossed my mind affirming the reverence I had for this man.

Comedic sensation, Dave Chappelle aptly put it,

“Taking away a man’s livelihood is akin to taking away his life. Never come between a man and his meal.”

I held my peace. I kept my mouth shut. I prayed that this man may have something to show for his day to his kith and kin when he got home in the evening.

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