Recently I boarded a matatu on my way home, and sat next to the driver. The other seat was vacant, but a few stops ahead, this gentleman flags down the matatu down and sits next to me. He is about my height and build, but looks much older, perhaps fifty. His hair, which is a mixture of grey and black, looks to have been trimmed recently. He is wearing a pair of dark trousers and a black oversize sweater with maroon patterns at the front. His forehead is heavily lined with wrinkles, perhaps a sign that life has not been especially kind to him. You know this life can make you keep frowning until the lines make a permanent home on your face. All in all, he is a very ordinary bloke, one you wouldn’t pick out from the crowd. He settles in as the matatu starts to move again.
At some point in the journey, a hand nudges us from the back. This is usually an indication that we should pay up our fare, so I fish out a 20 shilling coin from my pocket and hand it over. The man seated beside me (let’s call him Mr. X) hands over a one hundred shilling note. He is then given change, a 50 shilling note and some coins. He looks at them and turns back as if to complain. But then this matatu is the type that have a barrier separating the driver’s cabin and the rest of the body. So he holds the change tightly in his fist and leans back on his seat. His face is getting worked up and he is looks straight ahead, like a man deep in thought.
At the next stop, and as other passengers are alighting, Mr. X opens the door and asks the conductor to give him 10 shillings more.
“Mimi nashuka junction na ulisema junction ni kumi” he says with surprising calmness. The conductor tells him that the standard fare is 20 bob and the matatu starts to move again. At the next stop, the scene is replayed, but this time Mr. X is more agitated. As we proceed once again, Mr. X pleads his case with the driver:
“Huyu conductor alisema fare ni 10 bob lakini sasa ananigeuka,”
The driver clearly doesn’t want to get involved. He probably knows his mate is on the wrong but doesn’t want to betray him by siding with this man. Yet at the same time he doesn’t want to appear to be a bad man:
“Fare inakuwanga 20 bob lakini kama mliongea hiyo ni story ingine,”
“Eh, nilimuuliza kabla nipande na akaniambia junction ni 10 bob,”
“Hapo sasa sijui…” the driver’s voice trails off. I don’t blame him. I have been there before. I am sure at some point your friends or colleagues have attempted to drag you into their argument, wanting you to decide, and each of them wanting you to side with them. Often it is usually a very petty argument but by the time they seek you out, you would think their lives are dependent on their being right. And sometimes the one you owe more loyalty is usually on the wrong. It might even be your girlfriend (or wife) fiercely defending a blonde moment. You want to speak the truth but she has this Vladimir Putin look on her face that leaves no doubt that if you don’t side with her Cold War will break out between the two of you. So you choose your words carefully. They are probably arguing about something as petty as the name of George W. Bush’s wife.
“Barbara,” your girlfriend insists. “Laura,” the other girl shoots back. And so they come to you, the oracle.
“George W.’s wife is Laura,” you start. Your girlfriend snorts like a buffalo high on some rare species of peppered weed. So you continue quickly:
“BUT, his mother, George H.W.’s wife is called Barbara. So you are in a way also right,” you add, looking at her with what you believe are soft, loving eyes.
“We were talking about George W., not his father,” the other girl interjects. She has won, and the effect of her victory will not be corrupted by your romantic appeals. Why are people like this? You try holding your girlfriend’s hand to placate her but she stands and leaves in a huff. So much for being a mediator.
Anyway, back to the main story. The next stop is ABC Place, which is the junction at which Mr. X is alighting. Again he asks for his 10 bob. The conductor declines. He refuses to alight.
“Twendeni Westlands basi,” he tells the driver. The driver doesn’t move, nor does he say anything. He just stares at him blankly. People are starting to grumble about getting late, so Mr. X opens the door again:
“Leta kumi yangu bwana, ama twendeni Westlands. Unachelewesha watu.”
I can’t help but wonder what he intends to do, should the matatu crew decide to go with him to Westlands. I mean, the guy is probably going to Kangemi, which is maybe 10 bob from ABC Place. Going to Westlands would mean he would pay 10 bob or 20 bob more, and most likely not get 10 bob in contention from the conductor. I don’t bluff. I think I fear the embarrassment that would arise if someone called me out on the bluff. I only issue threats that I am capable of executing to the desired effect. So I found this guy to be very fascinating.
But then matatu conductor relents and throws the 10 bob at Mr. X. He is probably thinking what I am thinking. Why is this man so boldly insisting on going to Westlands? I mean, he can’t be staying put in the matatu without a game plan. Maybe at Westlands he will turn into a huge, hairy, three eyed ogre. Then he will gobble up both the conductor and the driver. Maybe the 10 bob is just an excuse for the ogre to get dinner. And really, you don’t want to end up in an ogre’s belly just because of 10 bob. So he hands him the 10 bob, but follows it up with insults. Mr. X responds in kind, unleashing his own dictionary of unprintables.
As we go down Waiyaki Way, the conductor makes a case to anyone who care to listen.
“Sasa anaona kama kumi itamsaidia sana. Kwanza ananipe mia ati nitoe kumi. Watu kama hao wnakuwanga wapumbavu sana…” he goes on and on and on.
Everybody else is silent. Even the driver is acting indifferent. Especially because the conductor can’t see him because of the barrier. I try to imagine the other people at the back. There is probably a girl listening to music through her earphones. Maybe two young men scrolling on their phones, perhaps placing bets for some football match in Euro 2016. A middle aged mama staring outside the window, perhaps wondering what to cook for the evening meal. And an old man looking at the conductor sympathetically.
No one like to lose, especially in public. It batters your ego. That is why some people keep on arguing even after they realize they are wrong. And it is the same reason we give excuses when we fail. Their goal was offside. They fielded ineligible players. The referee was biased. We did not have enough time to prepare.
But the thing is, whether the reasons for losing are believable or not, if the people you are telling act indifferent, you feel like they are stabbing you with flaming hot swords. Each one of them. They deflate what may have been left of your ego. That is why the smartest thing to do when you lose is often to concede defeat. It takes away the sting, though the disappointment will still be there. We only cling on because of ego. Even these two men, 10 bob was not the main issue. Ego was. I mean, the conductor could have just given the man his 10 bob, and he would have quickly forgotten the whole thing. Or the man could have just let it go. But both of them ruined their evening because of 10 bob. They went home with bitter thoughts over something that could have easily being avoided. What ego doesn’t tell us is that people forget easily. Within 5 minutes they will have forgotten you lost. So why get worked up just because you lost an argument over Chinese politics? Trust me very few people care whether or not you knew who the President of China is. Only your ego is tormenting you.