I was delighted to find my cousin waiting for me when I got off the bus. She’d arrived from Nairobi around 8:00 p.m., dropped off her luggage then returned to wait for me at the bus company’s office from 9:30 p.m. We threw my bag into the backseat and happily chatted on our way to her house.
Settling in for my first night’s rest in the town, I was grateful for the chilly breeze that intermittently blew through the window. That, coupled with the sand made Garissa feel like a nicer Mombasa—weather-wise anyway and if you aren’t into the whole “Ocean” thing. Before completely nodding off, I called family and friends to inform them of my safe arrival as well as to request my sister to urgently courier my National ID.
My cousin and I then began to plan an itinerary for my two days there. Sadly it turned out that there weren’t any historic sites to visit in the town. However, I could go swimming at a local resort, possibly feed giraffes and totally eat a camel. I ended up picking two out of these three exciting activities. But first, I had to respond to urgent emails that had been brought to my attention through my cousin’s line. That meant going into town the next day. It was arranged that Steve would pick me up mid-morning and take me to a cyber.
I woke up the next day happy and relaxed until I walked out of the shower and it hit me that I was in a predominantly Muslim community and all I’d packed to wear were shorts. With no one to consult on appropriate dress code, I put on my least “grabby” shorts and longest t-shirt and waited for Steve’s arrival. Although my cousin had said that there weren’t any historical sites of note, the slim, animated driver who spoke Swahili with an underlying Kikuyu accent begged to differ.
“Uliona kwa news kuna polisi walivamiwa na Al Shabaab waki change tire ya gari? Hapa ndio ilitendeka.” Did you hear about the cops who were attacked by Al Shabaab militants while changing a tire? This is where it happened.
“Pale kwa ile shule ndio walitupa grenade. Ilikuwa wakati wa campaign na Martha Karua alikuwa aende huko.” It was at that school that a grenade was thrown. At that time Martha Karua was around on her campaign trail and was supposed to visit the school.
“Siku ingine grenade ilitupwa kwa ile soko.” Someone threw a grenade in that market one day.
If Steve had looked at me through the rearview mirror he’d have seen my horror-stricken face. In that moment I was completely convinced that someone would get pissed that I was in shorts and throw a grenade on my lap. Seeing that Bruno Mars was not around, I discreetly rolled up the window. We drove on in silence until I alighted outside a hooded one-storey building. Steve drove off, promising to return at an agreed time.
I walked in to the cyber cafe to find five old computers and Kikuyu Gospel music blaring from what looked like the admin’s office. Two machines were already occupied so I sat down at the one next to a young lady in a buibui who was being assisted by the tall, willowy admin. There was an old man with a ginger beard seated behind the door who kept trying to catch the admin’s eye all the while waving his phone in the air and saying ‘Facebook! Facebook!’
I logged in and begun surfing the Net. Then, just as I was composing an email, it seemed like there was no Internet connection. I raised my hand to get the admin’s attention and as I asked whether there was a problem with the Net, he proceeded to take my mouse and close down windows with an error message.
I attempted to demonstrate the problem using static windows by right-clicking on elements on the page to show that I wasn’t able to open subsequent tabs. But again, he took the mouse and I sat back in open-mouthed wonder as he clicked shut window after window. I was like, WTF? He then mumbled something then initiated what looked like a cleanup program.
After a while, he asked me to move to the next machine. With gritted teeth I moved to the adjacent machine which, true to my observation, did not connect to the Net. That’s when the bugger goes like, “Hakuna Internet. Unaweza rudi baadaye?” (There isn’t Internet connectivity. Can you come back later?) SMH! I left. However, with time to kill before Steve’s return, I decided to walk up to the Equity ATM I’d seen on the drive down. By the way, the only reason I felt confident to walk around in my shorts is because I kept seeing girls dressed in jeans and trousers.
I stood in queue at the only working machine and marvelled at how one or more people often gathered around an ATM user either assisting or simply commenting on his transaction. Later on when I told my cousin about my observation, she told me that it was common for people to nonchalantly look over your shoulder as you transacted your business while asking, “Machine inafanya kazi?” (Is the ATM operational?)
In any case, once I was done I went back to the cyber to wait for Steve and check if Internet was back. It wasn’t but thankfully my cousin had taken an early lunch break and they’d come to pick me up. I told her about my earlier shorts dilemma and she told me that Garissa was pretty tolerant of outsiders dressing as they pleased. On the short drive to the restaurant, I took in the sights and sounds of the small windswept town. There were cows everywhere but no camels. In fact, the only camel I encountered was dry fried and deliciously sizzling on my plate.
After pilau and sugaar (camel meat), my cousin took me to her favourite cyber and then went back to work. The speeds were much faster and I was able to get work done. However, since Steve would be driving me home but I still didn’t have a working phone, we devised a plan where I would send my cousin an email when I was ready to go then she’d inform Steve to pick me up. She had an iPhone and was confident in our plan. (Team iPhone, hoye!)
I did as planned but after waiting for 20 minutes outside the cyber cafe, I grew impatient and decided to grab any old taxi to take me home. I was pretty confident that I knew the way home by sight. Ha! Bedecked in dated tiger print seat covers, the station wagon taxi I flagged down was driven by a small Somali man. His cheeks bulging with miraa, the driver began chatting away as we started the journey. I was half-listening, my attention taken up by the sight of hawkers and pedestrians hurriedly running away without a backward glance at the area we were driving towards.
“Umeskia wamepiga watu wawili risasi? Nimewaona! Wamelala hivi (raises both hands off the steering wheel and holds them up parallel to each other).”
(Did you hear that two people have been shot? I’ve seen the bodies. They’ve been laid out like this [raises both hands off the steering wheel and holds them up parallel to each other].”
As the second WTF moment of the day unfolded before me, we turned a corner and the small crowds formed on either side of the road were now looking past our car. Gratefully, we were now driving away from the chaos. Although we stopped every so often so that the driver could strike up conversations with his friends, I got home in one piece. I did lose my bearing a little because the houses looked very much alike, but thankfully, the house I picked to walk up to and ask directions to my cousin’s house, was in fact my cousin’s house!
Her housemate was home and on the phone with my panic-stricken cousin. As it turns out, Steve had been parked right across from the area where the KRA agents had been gunned down. He was woken up by the gunshots and had fled in panic, abandoning the task of picking me up at the cyber. Ha! Trust me, the conversations we had during dinner that night were quite animated.
The next day I was torn between going to the Garissa Community Giraffe Sanctuary and swimming at the fancy resort. Although I loved adventure, my cousin warned me that the roads leading to the public sanctuary there were in a bad state due to the recent downpours. Plus, there was no guarantee that I’d actually see a giraffe.
So, swimming it was and because it was a weekday, I had the pool all to myself. The only weird thing is that when I sat reading my book by the poolside, black mosquitoes were happily sucking my blood. The weirdest part was that their bellies had translucent skin so you could see the blood! Eeeeeew! Anyway, we got back to the city so that I could book a ticket for my return trip and collect my ID which had been sent through the same bus company. We passed by the market and purchased beautifully patterned fabrics to make diras (house dresses) for my favourite ladies back at home.
After the drama I encountered on the trip down, I resolved to board my 8:00 a.m. bus on time and keep my ID close by. This time I took seat no. 20 and sat next to a young lady carrying a child on her lap. When we got to the first checkpoint, we all alighted from the bus and formed two queues next to it. Our IDs were closely examined and the cop even had a magnifying glass handy for closer scrutiny.
As the bus pulled out of the checkpoint zone, I realized that my seatmate was missing. I drew this to the attention to the conductors—interestingly, it was Raila and the elderly Somali man again—but turns out the girl had moved to sit with her aunty a few rows ahead. She returned to her seat without the child and we even struck up a small conversation. At the second checkpoint, the cops boarded the bus and checked our IDs once more. When they got to our seats, I handed over my ID while my seatmate gave an ID waiting card.
“Unaishi wapi?” (Where do you live?) he asked as he examined the laminated piece of paper.
“Garissa,” she responded.
“Basi kwa nini ulichukua hii kadi Wajir? Ebu toka kwa gari,” (Then why was this card issued in Wajir? Get off the bus), he replied.
And that was the last we saw of her. The bus pulled out of the checkpoint amid a flurry of animated shouts in Somali by the other passengers. As I craned my neck back towards the area we’d dropped them, I saw her being escorted towards a small mabati structure off the road. Raila then came to sit by me and I asked him if the girl was coming back. He said, “Huyo tumemwacha kabisa.” (We’ve left that one indefinitely.)
Damn. That could have been me.
Anyway, the rest of the trip was drama free and I returned safe and sound to Eastleigh around 3:00 p.m. to find my wonderful bag carrier waiting for me.