Notes and coins

The 30 minute journey from Gill House in Nairobi’s CBD to S****, a residential suburb off Mombasa road, begins hot, sweaty, and exhaust fumes filled. Down Haile Selassie Avenue, where all the matatu windows need to be closed shut (except for the driver’s) because of the casual bag snatchers masquerading as pedestrians and then as the 15-seater van turns left onto Uhuru highway, a breeze ambles in through the windows, oblivious to the shallow, hoarse gasps of its occupants.

The tout (conductor who collects fares from passengers) starts jingling coins in his fingers – a suggestion that it is time to pay. Lost in thoughts of the day and plans for the public holiday tomorrow, most of the passengers are oblivious. Looking out the window, they are staring blankly at other commuters on the streets – some rushing to a destination, others strolling casually down the street heading to a social get together.

So the tout tries a different tack. He starts to fiddle in his seat, leans forward towards the row in front of him and taps the shoulder of the three passengers, from right to left, with his index finger. Startled they come out of their reverie, and instinctively start to dig into their wallets, purses and pockets for the fare.

Those in the seat behind him are still oblivious and so the tout discards all attempts at courtesy, clears his throat and says, “Pesa nyuma” (money at the back) hoping to alert the rest of the car to how he has started collecting fares, even though the matatu has barely moved haven’t 500 metres from the main bus stage.

And with this, the rest of the passengers dig into their pockets. The men roll over onto their left buttocks, pull out some crumpled notes from a trouser pocket and extend it folded to the tout.

The women cuddle their purses closer towards them and surreptitiously pull out a note from a side zipper, hold onto it in their fingers until the tout has extended his hand towards them and then poke the entire note out from in between two fingers so that there is no confusion about how much money they have handed over. The Somali women on board go one better. Facing forward, they reach into an invisible purse which is wrapped deep within the folds of their black bui buis (Islamic garments cloaking the length of the female form), and with barely a flutter of the silky black material or a jingle of coins, they pull out the exact amount.

Each note the tout receives, he straightens, folds lengthwise in half, effectively slicing the face of every Kenyan head of state, and then as if he were straightening crumpled crepe paper, weaves it through his fingers: under the index finger, over the middle finger and under the ring finger.

And then return their change to those who did not have the exact amount. The female passenger in the back row who gave a 1,000 shillings note for a 60 shillings fare starts to fiddle nervously, trying to catch his eye. With every passenger that he gives change to, she gets more and more anxious seeing the small notes and coins disappear. Her heart rate accelerates but she keeps her eyes fixed inside the car, so that in case he is trying to draw her eye, she is visually accessible. All the money is now gone from his hand, and he is down to the last ten shillings, made up of two tiny 5 shilling coins; she can bear the tension no longer.

So she calls out “Change!” Her mouth is dry and the word crackles out. Even the passenger sitting next to her, the one with his leg pressed down the length of her thigh despite numerous attempts to move closer to the wall of the car and away from his hot, sweaty leg, doesn’t react.

The tout ignores her. She tries again. Louder. “Excuse! Change.”

The tout is looking out the window, and they are pulling off the Mombasa road highway onto P*** road. Passengers are about to start alighting, and she still doesn’t have her money. So she taps the passenger in front of her on the shoulder and gestures him to call the tout, and when he turns around, she says in an urgent voice “Change! Tuna shuka.” (I am getting off.) He had turned round when tapped by the other passenger but with a shrug from within his stringy maroon waistcoat, turns away when she starts talking.

Nervous and tense, her irises widen into round black pools, and she starts to examine the faces of the passengers, searching for a look or a smile of support.

Two stops away from her own, the tout thrusts his hand into his right pocket and pulls out a wad of tightly coiled notes, and begins to peel some off.

With her stop in sight, he turns round and asks her if she has a ten shilling coin, and desperate to get her money in her hands, she rummages frantically through all the pockets of her purse, dredging up a memory of a coin secreted in one of the many zips of her bag. Triumphant she pulls out the silver coin circled in gold, and extends it towards him. He turns, takes the coin and then points the notes of her change at her.

She tugs the money from his fingers, relieved, and clasps them in her palm; forgetting that a Kenyan survey had found that the dirtiest, most unhygienic notes in the country could be found in the hands of a road side maindi (maize) seller, and a matatu tout. She tucks them into a side zipper and alights, silently swearing to carry the exact change next time.

If the relief of getting her money from the tout were less absorbing, she would have noticed the insolent smirk on his face as the matatu pulled away.

January 26 2012

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