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The Coughing Bus

I needed to pee. Sitting upright on the bed, I stretched my arm and tapped my brother on the shoulder because I could not venture outside on my own. I was only a kid, in class five, to be precise, and if you know anything about pit latrines in the village is that they are usually located on the other end of the fence, far away from the main house. And to make matters worse, they are built facing the hedge which would act as the door. This made visiting the toilet at night a very dangerous affair. But I needed to pee.

My brother did not stir. I tapped him again and again and again but he remained stiff because he was tired of me and my abnormal desire to pee after every two minutes. And also, he most likely knew that my waking up had nothing to do with pee but everything to do with my unreasonable fear that the bus to Webuye would leave without me if I so much as entertained sleep even for a minute.

You see, our poetry and choir teams were going to represent the school at the Provincial level in Webuye after wiping the floor with our competitors at the District Level. The school called for a fundraiser and soon money was available to hire a bus to take us to Webuye and we were more than excited, not because our future in poetry and music was shining, but because to most pupils, they were going to board a bus for the very first time and see a tarmacked road for the very first time. I had had the privilege of boarding the bus and seeing a tarmacked road, but still.

I was up with the first cockcrow. By the time the sun was showing from the east, I had flung my bag on my back and trekked to school because I was not in the mood to take chances. As early as it was, I was not surprised to find that I was not the first one to arrive in the school compound. A crowd was already forming. Bags of all sizes were available and soon the school teacher was calling names of those who were travelling, asking us to move from the other side. By the time she was done reading the list, there was still a huge crowd on the other side because, as expected, we had pupils hoping to joyride.

We watched them with pity as they were being ordered to class after they were reminded this trip was for the chosen few. The poets, spoken word artists and musicians, basically the talented who were going to make a difference. This trip was not for those who only used their mouth to eat or speak things that did not stir the society to rise up. Neither was it for the dunderheads whose brains could not memorise poetry lines. As the chosen ones, we waited for the rented bus to drive in and take us to Webuye, the land where trees were magically being turned into paper.

We were supposed to leave by 8 in the morning but by 8 in the morning no bus was in sight. Rumours started spreading that the neighbouring highschool from which our school had rented the bus had refused to release the bus because no payment had been made. We murmured amongst ourselves and soon the murmuring grew louder and louder until the teachers started making frantic calls.

And then, when it seemed like things were spiralling out of control, we saw smoke approaching. We all stared at the smoke as it approached, noisily, and we were just about to run for our dear lives when the noise stopped, the smoke cleared and in its place stood an old, rickety matatu that surely needed to catch a breath. From it emerged our headteacher like undertaker who announced this was the bus going to take us to Webuye. We all looked bewildered. Not only was the matatu old and a deathtrap, but it could also carry only half of the team.

Money had been eaten.

But there was nothing we could do. We were arranged in that matatu like a sack of potatoes, but if you looked around you could tell that everyone was smiling. We were still going to Webuye, after all. We were still going to see the tarmacked road. No sooner had the bus taken off than we started singing, warning our competitors that we were coming for them, but our competitors could not hear us even if they were right behind us because the coughing bus muzzled our voices. When we hit the first tarmac at Chwele, the excitement shot to new levels and our voices rose even higher and higher, for the first time overpowering that of the coughing bus.

The ride was smoother. It also turned out that the rickety matatu was a blessing in disguise because it could not go faster and because it could not go faster, we spent more time on the road. The smoke did try to suffocate us though. It clouded our heads and our brains because by the time we arrived at Webuye we could barely remember our songs lyrics or poetry lines. We were no better than the dunderheads we left behind. Which means we were almost number last in all competitions but we did not mind because we had the privilege of visiting Webuye Panpaper, fetch water from the borehole and interact with pupils who spoke English of the nose.

Many, many years later and I still remember this experience because this is what traveling does to you. No matter the experience, the memory will stay with you. You will have a story to tell. And as long as you have a story to tell, you will never lead a boring life.

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