The SGR choo-choo train is scheduled to depart Mombasa for Nairobi at 10pm. We make it just in time not to miss the trip. The chap tasked with booking us seats wears cologne that could easily be confused for air freshener. So it makes sense that he had us sit next to the toilet.
We are bone tired by the time we are resting our hides on our ticketed slots. For some, the tire emanates from excessive beer consumption by the beach while others are worn out by their indulgence in sins of passion.
I reserve my judgement for either lot of the lads. To each their own. A man chooses his vices in his lifetime. Whether it’s at the foot of a beer bottle or at the helm of a lady’s skirt, it’s none of my business how a man decides to deprave his soul. Provided I’m still allowed to have 10 chapatis at a go, I will live and let live.
As is often the case, public transport in Kenya is designed to punish those who dare be tall. Read me. The average Kenyan man stands at 5’7 and when the government conducts censuses it treats such data with the seriousness it deserves. So much so that PSVs, matatus and the SGR included are built with legroom sufficient only for such men. And so I suffer, forced once again to kiss my knees and forever hold my peace.
The unintended consequence of all of this is I can’t summon a wink of sleep. Slouching isn’t an option because my knees might as well poke the motorman. In our cabin, a table big enough to host four party cups stands between the four of us. Two of the boys have already hogged it and nodded off. I’m left with the option of sleeping while seated upright but then again I’m not trying to choke on my adams apple.
With the lulling distraction of sleep clearly out of the way, I find myself in a pickle.Earliest this midnight train could snake its way inside Nairobi’s underbelly is 3am. Dangling between the devil and the deep blue sea, I have no choice but to contend with five hours of contrived insomnia.
By 11pm I find myself unable to bear my idleness. My thoughts have run blank and insidious restlessness has crept in. I try to stay calm, to measure my pulse and breathing, to allay the fidgeting of my fingers, to run down the clock tick by tock. I try to keep it cool like a criminal attempting to bypass a polygraph but to no avail. Nothing works. I feel on edge as my composure wanes. My eyeballs vigorously dart across booths scrutinising every detail of this contraption. Looking and searching for salving from the anguish of ennui. Seeking reprieve from the jaws of boredom.
But the moment feels eureka as I finally notice what has been before me all along. Hidden in plain sight was a woman working the graveyard shift. A cleaner for that matter. Assigned to our coach. Coach number ten. Usually there’s nothing remarkable about cleaners. Or so we think. They dirty their hands, doing jobs we’d rather not do. Their work lacking in imagination is repetitive. It’s not like their brief moves the world ahead in any way. They are not data scientists or oncologists. They aren’t tenured professors who spew wit and wisdom. They are not custodians of our faith and souls like the clergy. They can’t get us off our seats like Mbappe at the world cup. They can’t rouse a crowd like a politician does. We do not hum to the words and voices of their hearts as we do to those of our favourite musicians. Cleaners do grimy work, they sully themselves with the dirt of others. I’m yet to hear of a cleaner who reminisces on a long and memorable career. Perhaps, it’s because the stuff they do and the pay they get for it is nothing to remember.
Yet as unremarkable and unmemorable as her work is purported to be, there I was paying her attention. Surreptitiously observing with keen interest and immersing myself into her every movement as she undertook her duty.
She was a young lass looking no older than 26. Her thickly threaded braids were tied in a lump and lingered down her back. She was fit and slender, her body only bulging beneath her waistline introducing her made to measure hips. When she smiled and she did so a lot her lips gave way to an immaculate casing of milky teeth. Her skin was dark and gracious, shining slightly fairer than a silhouette. She was a woman evidently in her physical prime. The scrubs and protective gear she wore were embroidered with the company name she worked for.
How she looked or what she wore was not what gave her away. It was how she discharged her duty. How she conducted herself in the process.
As the night willed on, more people fell asleep meaning she’d have more time and space to do her job. From the moment she captured my line of sight to our arrival in Nairobi she was on her feet. Shuffling about picking passenger’s debris underneath booths. Tossing soda cans, candy wrappers, disposed serviettes, disposable cups the works in trash bags. At every arising opportunity she mopped the coach to and fro erasing traces of spilt drinks and keeping things wrinkle free.
She then scrubbed the toilet and wash area spick and span a whooping four times throughout the trip. Yes, I actually counted. Some people would go into those toilets and their bowel movements were as audible as tire bursts. As if they had biryani and barutis for lunch in Mombasa. Some people never flushed. Some were kids suffering motion sickness and threw up in the toilet bowl. People would go into that lavatory and egest the worst versions of themselves.
But no sooner had one left, she was in there braving the shitstorm, recycling human waste employing detergents and brushes. Readying it for the next user, the air wafting of fruity scented air freshener as she left. She even hurried herself in case there was someone who had to go. She said please and sorry often. She was timely in assisting mothers whose kids couldn’t shut up with rolls of tissue paper. She was kind and extremely polite, willingly offering herself to anyone who needed her aid. She never sat or rested. Her single and only respite came when the train finally sighed its last at the Syokimau terminus. She was a real boon and I couldn’t figure why people who were avidly snoring, farting and drooling in this coach deserved her.
Like the story of the ten lepers, only a few voyageurs were courteous enough to express their gratitude. Kenyans aren’t adept at saying thank you.
In the ensuing week she would become the object of my thoughts. What was her story, her angle? Was she a pariah, exiled by her family and struggling to make ends meet? Was this yet another Kenyan graduate doing her best to survive? Was she the proverbial single-mom abandoned by a fugitive boyfriend who was better off using a rubber? Was she an undercover cop?
She could have been and done anything but clean after people’s angry bellies. She had her looks going on for her, I know of young girls from notably capable families who have turned their beauty into an occupation. She seemed affable and genial, maybe she had a life in customer care or sales. She could have joined the convent and lived off sadaka. She might as well have pursued a life in crime, like those boys in Juja minting millions in cybercrime. She could have been anything but.
Whatever her story was I couldn’t figure it out.
But then I thought again. I figured there’s merit in depending on oneself regardless of what people think about what you do for a living. I figured the only work that moves the world forward is work that dignifies the indignity of others. Doctors cure our maladies. Teachers scour our ignorance to naught and cleaners hoover away our impurities. And I also figured that hard work and wholehearted application is a virtue regardless of circumstance.
Lastly, I felt sorry. I felt sorry for young men who listen to Andrew Tate the whole day on what it takes to be a man. Instead of dusting their backsides and making something of themselves. I felt sorry for keyboard warriors, people who hate and wait on the government to change their lives. I felt sorry for anyone who thinks that the life they want isn’t theirs to make.