It’s a nondescript, dust-swept, barely-there shopping centre a few miles to Sagana, or ….. on the Nairobi – Mt. Kenya highway.
The only conspicuous thing on this stretch are the appealing, rich roadside nurseries with all sorts of seedlings for sale – mango, tangerine, paw paw, guava…. Name a tree, you’ll find it on the roadside nurseries on the Kambiti stretch.
However, it’s a traumatic traffic incident at Kambiti that almost broke me, a few days to New Year, 2020. It’s been a healing process, since.
In 2019, I had applied for a role at a major media outlet in Nairobi, and they had responded well – offering me an interview just a day into the new year.
Since I knew traffic is crazy around holidays, I opted to travel on December 28th, spend a few days at a relative’s place in the city.
On the day, I booked an expensive seat on one of Meru’s premier luxury shuttles. A luxury shutttle in Meru means a PSV with a few people less than the regular 14 seater. This was a 10-seater.
We set off around 6pm, and it was a smooth ride – our driver had a penchant for small talk, and a bias for reggae music.
I had landed the VIP co-driver seat – we didn’t have anyone expecting a baby on that ride. In Meru PSVs, the co-driver seat is the ‘Madam-wewe-kaa-hapa’ seat for pregnancy cases.
All was well. I was enjoying the best of the famed Meru’s green gold (miraa), and on a brief stopover in Embu, got a little bag of their heritage – Muguka.
A blur of towns and shopping centres. Then, Kambiti.
Exactly one or so miles past Kambiti, there’s a slight hill – and a fruit tree nursery on the left – our luxury shuttle – with Joseph Hill on the stereo – starts shaking, then stalls, smack on the highway.
The driver had to reverse by gravity, off the road.
Another thing about these nurseries on the Kambiti stretch – there’s never any attendants on site.
The driver mumbled something about clutch failure, calling the head office and asking for a company mechanic. Either way, we’d have to spend a few hours here – it’s dark, almost 8pm.
Some of the passengers were napping, and didn’t have a clue.
As soon as I opened the van’s door, a nasty whiff of manure hit me – there were around 2 or 3 heaps of goat manure on site – probably for new nurseries.
Well, at the same time, the van’s sliding door opened, and someone jumped out. In the dim light, I saw a middle-aged woman, much like my mother – and she was unwrapping her headscarf.
Again, my mind flashed to my grandmother’s Women’s Guild blue head scarf.
At this point, I’m fumbling for my cigarettes.
Meru green products creates a nicotine craving.
I had presumed the woman to be dashing to pee, or something – but I was wrong. She stops briefly, and glances at me – and asks:
“Mwano’kwa, kama uko na simu na pesa leta nikuwekee…..”
Mwano’kwa is a favourite pet name for mothers in Meru. Again, she reminded me of my mother.
Purely by chance and autopilot – again, she looked like my mum – I whipped out my phone and my wallet and gave her
Or, rather, they joined her phone and what seemed like a bunch of notes on her headscarf. She proceeded to wrap them in a bunch.
Another odd thing that made me freeze my cigarette indulgence – she sprints to the nearest goat manure heap and frantically buries the bundle.
It seems eerie in the half-light. I felt like a participant in a sorcery ritual. All this while – most others in the van are still napping off whatever it is the government is stressing them about.
Shortly, the mama joins me, flapping her hands to get rid of goat manure. She tells me she’s a mtumba-dealer in Gakoromone.
If you didn’t know, this is Meru’s version of Gikomba. Ok, that explained the bunch of notes.
Ghafla bin fuu (I haven’t used this phrase since high school, I swear), a few people materialize – singly – singly from the darkness. Five guys.
In a few moments, I realize its actually a gang – what with them producing machetes – in perfect sync.
The machetes are sharp. Blunt machetes do not reflect off light from headlights from passing vehicles. Do not argue, I hail from the unofficial land of machetes.
The biggest guy points at me with a machete, and growls: “Nyinyi mketi chini na mnyamaze…”
I’m still in a daze, blame the Muguka from Embu, perhaps. In high school, we had a game: a friend would tap you and say “STATUE” – if you choose to play it, you’d remain still. Dead still.
At that moment in Kambiti I was playing statue – except, instead of my plump best friend Mark, it was a machete-wielding thug swathed in puffed-up sailor jacket.
Meanwhile, some passengers are stirring. I flop down on the dirt next to my mama friend. Again, this is an abomination in Meru – thou shall not sit this close to your mother.
The driver is still on his seat – making calls. I suppose, at 8pm the office people are eating Matoke and greens with their husbands. Those offices are always manned by ladies.
One of the thugs strides over, grabs the phone – and, well, rips off the battery.
To cut short a long story, this gang proceeded to systematically rob us of everything ‘robber-ble’ – phones, handbags, luggage, hell, someone even had the nerve to grab the driver’s yoghurt from the van’s cup holder.
I’d speak of trauma, but I will not. I was better off than the napping passengers. Imagine being poked awake with a machete, by a strange face reeking of muratina.
All this while, you are dreaming of dual carriage ways and sky scrappers, expecting to wake up in the city.
At this juncture, the gang’s banter was:
Leo tutapata wengine ama tufunge kazi?
Ni mapema sana, Njoro, hatuezi kosa shuttle ya Nyeri by saa tatu….
On hindsight, we got one of the robber’s name.
But, hey, this is Murang’a County. Njoro’s come a dime a dozen.
Later on, the mama mboga told me that they must have had a good day, else, they’d have stripped us and probably raped people – irrespective of gender.
Kambiti gives me nightmares.