Long Live Mama Githurai!
It is 2013, and I am out and about. As the crowded Paradiso bus grinds to a stop, I sigh with relief. The 15 minutes transit from Ronald Ngala Street has been an unforgettable, everlasting ordeal!
Inside, the bus is like an oven, stuffy with a cocktail of smells from stale sweat to the unmistakable waft of cheap alcohol from some drunk fella nearby. One can also make out the irritating tang of onions, the sweet-sickly aroma of overripe bananas and vegetables all destined for Githurai 45, a sprawling market town outside Nairobi on Thika superhighway. Soon, there will be some fresh air- I hope. My poor ribs also long for a welcome release from the agony of being sandwiched between a hefty market woman, and a drowsy fellow with bloodshot eyes! I am praying he doesn’t open his mouth beyond the occasional grunt, for the obvious reason: I don’t want to die young for exposure to a poison gas chamber. As soon as the conductor opens the door, I wiggle my way out and step into the raucous sea of humanity, all busy with a million and one errands here, there and everywhere. No sooner am I out than I discover it; the smells and deafening noise of Githurai 45 will be my official welcome! What relief!
I pick my way through the narrow passages between the clothes and vegetable stalls and stands adjacent to the bus stage, and come to the main street. The newly-tarmacked street forks off the superhighway, dividing the town into the upper and lower sections, like a dirty black tongue of a monster, stained with putrefying food remains. Perilous banana peels, vegetable debris and an assortment of rubbish litter the narrow space encroached by make-shift stalls and kiosks on either side. Here, fruit, vegetable, popcorn, Dawa ya Mende, toothpaste mwitu, airtime vouchers, mitumba clothes and shoes, and an amalgam of knick-knack vendors jostle for every inch of space between the edge of the road and the malodorous gutter snaking through the bloated intestines of the town. Beyond the stalls on the upper part of the town stand the Kass Mart Supermarket, the Cooperative Bank and a concrete jungle of apartments towering from behind, frowning indignantly at the nuisance of human activity below. A silent cold war is happening here, between the marble-tiled bourgeois members of this jungle, and the hoi polloi milling all around. Both must learn to coexist, regardless. But remembering what this market means for my family’s menu, I realize that despite her untidy demeanour, I wish Mama Githurai long life and health. Like it or not, she is the generous mother who feeds the city, and I know I will eat from her basket again and again!
Turning off the street to my right, I walk up the steep ramp leading to the supermarket, and lean against one of the glossy, marble-tiled pillars. From where I stand, I can make out the husky voice of a zealous street preacher, somewhere further down the street. He is feverishly calling sinners to repent or perish! Even with all the din along the street and the market stalls, his zealous voice rises with messianic urgency, and a small crowd of curious souls seem enamoured by this servant of God. Whether it is because of the hunger of their souls, or the fire in the belly of this hammerer of the gospel is not clear, but there is no doubt that some audience is captivated. Well, don’t gossip about this, but I have heard of merchants of the Word who procure crowd-pulling charms from the local Karumanziras. These glorified traditional doctors have colonized every available electricity pole with posters advertising an array of dubious services, including Kukinga Boma, love potions, Nguvu za Kiume, business success etc. And the killer tagline is: “Your religion does not matter!” Still, there is a sincerity about our brother Philip on Live-stream which for now eliminates him from the short list of the type who patronize Karumanzira booths.
In that reflective mood, suddenly I am jolted back by what sounds like a rude anti-climax. His voice suddenly hits a new crescendo of zeal.
It dawns on me that the man of God is now closing the deal. With that haunting tone of appeal, the preacher is now pleading to the faithful to “sow a seed” and “stand” with God’s work! He doesn’t threaten fire and brimstone like the biblical Sons of Thunder, but there is something of a moral imperative that he effuses that will haunt even the tightfisted, hard boiled cynic all the way back to whatever hole they came from. It is not difficult to see the cleverness of this twist though, and I catch myself grinning. But this is standard procedure, I remind myself. Everyone must find a way to go for the jugular or they will go home empty-handed. From the honking of buses and motorbikes vying for beleaguered commuters and space, to the touting of glaze eyed vendors wooing customers, to brother John the Baptist saving himself and others, one thing is clear: It’s a tough battle for survival here! After all, this is a marketplace, and everyone has to sell- or buy something.
Long live Mama Githurai!