Learning to Run Kenyan Style

We’re not going to make it!” I yell into Babu’s ear so he can hear me over the revved-up sputtering of his tuk-tuk’s engine.

He expertly maneuvers all three wheels of his tiny vehicle between buses, semis, and pedestrians. “Just trust,” he says. For added reassurance, he flashes his brilliant, toothy smile my way.

We speed past hundreds of cars inching forward in Mombasa’s morning rush hour. Even by Kenyan standards, I am running late. Really late! My bus was scheduled to leave to Nairobi a half-hour ago and we are still ten minutes away from the bus station.

Babu hops his tuk-tuk onto the narrow median that tenuously protects us from oncoming traffic, although at this point, there is really nothing “oncoming” about it. Traffic in all directions has halted to a complete stop. “You cannot miss your bus!” he yells. “It is very difficult to get a seat during the Christmas holiday.”

He spots a police officer up ahead and quickly drops his tuk-tuk back onto the street. “You have to alight and run,” he tells me. “If the bus has left the bus station, keep running. It could not have gone far in today’s horrible traffic.”

Kenyans always seem surprised by current traffic conditions, which is strange because encountering heavy traffic in Kenyan cities is as surprising as, say, finding that water is wet.

“Thanks, Babu.” I put a 200 shilling note in his hand, snatch my two bags, and start to cross the street to run on the sidewalk.

“No!” Babu motions me back. “You must run on this,” he shouts, points at the median. “Too many people on the sidewalk. You must catch the bus before it reaches the second roundabout. It will move very fast after that!”

I start my sprint in the hot, humid heat, moving quickly on the median until it ends beneath my sandals. I continue running in the middle of the street, dodging motorcycle taxis and weaving between cars and peanut vendors until

I arrive at the bus station, dripping wet with sweat.

“It left 20 minutes ago,” the doorman tells me, pointing down the road. “Run fast! Catch it before the second roundabout.”

On the street, cars have begun moving again, adding deadly obstacles to my course. A matatu with the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” emblazoned on its front windshield honks at me and someone yells something in Swahili. From the tone, I gather my impromptu marathon is not amusing anyone.

By the time I reach the first roundabout, my breakfast has crept up into my throat and I can feel my heart pounding at my temples, but I push past my lungs’ plea for oxygen. As I cross the busy roundabout, I suddenly feel the weight on my left shoulder lighten up. I look behind me just in time to spot my bag with all my belongings lying on the asphalt and disappearing out of view between the tires of two trucks.

A young man runs into the roundabout and picks up my bag. I try to catch my breath to scream that I am being robbed, but before I can stop wheezing, the man comes running at me with my bag. “Where are we going?” he asks excitedly.

“To try to catch the Mash bus to Nairobi.”

“Let’s go! We must catch it before the next roundabout!”

We begin running in tandem. My sandal breaks and lands in the gutter behind us. He goes to retrieve it but I stop him and kick off my other sandal.

“Just keep going, I have shoes in the bag!”

“Hurry,” he says, “I can see the bus. It’s near the roundabout!”

He runs far ahead of me, his long legs gracefully launching him toward the bus. He beats his fist on the bus’s side and begins yelling. The only word I understand is “mzungu,” which roughly translates to “foreigner.”

The bus stops, its doors open, and the attendant takes my bags when I finally catch up. I take out my wallet to give something to the Good Samaritan but he stops me with an offended look, then smiles and says, “Karibu, my friend. Safe journey.” He puts his hand on my back and ushers me onto the bus.

The driver takes a look at my bare feet and lets out a belly laugh. “Ah, you are learning to run Kenyan style, friend. Merry Christmas.”

I collapse on my seat, take out my journal, and begin writing.

Merry Christmas, indeed. I love Kenya!

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