The night air presses hot and thick outside the windows. The ancient bus groans and heaves itself another mile along the road. It’s four a.m.
A slim throw of light weaves ahead, as we slalom around endless potholes, the creaking chassis of the bus vibrating stiffly with every bounce of broken shocks.
And beyond our beam, it’s only darkness. As black as pitch – there is no distant orange streetlight glow here; no twinkling, reassuring glimmer of a distant homestead to break the gloom.
The rain is falling softly now, sluicing insistently down the windscreen. There are no wipers on the bus. But after a while, the drops somehow reassemble a filmy view of the road in front, and it doesn’t matter any more.
This is the main East African coastal highway – but don’t imagine any shiny roadsigns to announce that fact. No white lines, nor other traffic, either. Just deeply pitted, decaying tarmac. Puddles and blackness stretching far ahead.
In the distance, our headlights pick out two women walking slowly with five yellow water containers and a bicycle between them. Where have they come from, at this unholy hour ? Where are they going to ? I just can’t say.
The black fingers of the night fold tighter, squeezing closer to the roadside. Behind us, to the north, lie Watamu, Malindi. Lamu. Beyond that, perhaps Somalia, somewhere far beyond. And ahead of us: the port city of Mombasa, and then – who knows ? Tanzania, a ship to Zanzibar, or Mozambique ?
But tropical Africa won’t stretch so far, this time. It’s the airport that’s in our sights. A journey home – this trip now slowly beginning to unwind itself, as they always do. A reversal through the mirror, reflecting on lives lived another way.
An hour past Kilifi, the first laconic light of dawn shrugs itself wearily into the sky. The trees of the rainforest are slowly thinning now. A few minutes later – a clearing. A house. More bush, and then a field or two. A village. A hotel. A hundred shacks of corrugated iron, mud and straw.
The day arrives to greet the outskirts of Mombasa. Roadside stalls. Shops. Huts. Hovels. People and cars, aimlessly wandering. And finally the city itself – no seaside beauty, this place, but it looks far more prosperous than when we drove the other way. A grimy, desperate shithole then, now it looks buzzing, more reasoned, enticing – faintly thriving, even.
The rain falls more heavily now. As we pass the oil refineries, I see our driver’s knuckles tighten as he stares determinedly through the cloudburst. There’s no airconditioning or fan to clear the fog, so Moses jumps up to wipe the misting windscreen. It’s the twentieth time this morning.
Soon after, he rises slowly to his feet, just before the airport. He’d like to wish us all a safe and happy journey, and hopes to see us back here soon. We’ll be very welcome. ‘And please don’t forget us, here in Kenya.’ If we want to leave a tip of thanks, then he and William will be very grateful. Their families will be, too.
The woman in front of me sighs in sharp annoyance. ‘They’re never slow in coming forwards to ask for money, are they ?’ she moans.
I brace the politest of smiles across my face.
‘Yes, exactly. And my God, don’t they need it ? They’re starving half to death.’
I reach into my pocket, and from the disgustingly deep pile of notes I find there, unpeel a thousand shilling note. It’s hardly anything at all for bringing a whole family safely through the forests of the night. Just £7 – and, anyway, who am I kidding about generosity ? – I can’t change Kenyan currency back at home.
The Englishwoman falls silent. A flash of anger rises above the grimace on her brow. Then slowly, quietly, she reaches in her purse. Pulls a hundred shilling note, and puts it back. Replaces it with twice that much. Finally, decidedly, she cuts five hundred shillings from her pack, lays them down on the dashboard, and with a fleeting toss of highlights climbs off the bus.
A few moments later, I follow. But there’s no chance now to catch her eye – right here, beneath the steps, a thin, emaciated man with hollowed eyes, dirty clothes and a grubby muslim headdress demands my full attention. He stands and peers imploringly into my face. ‘Carry heavy bag, please ?’ he offers.
* * * *
An hour later, our last shillings safely spent on cake and croissants, we’re getting on the flight. I shuffle down the aisle, find my seat and fold myself to fit. A moment’s rest to close my tired eyes, and try to think about this trip. So much to say, but how could I ever find the way to start ?
Just then, I hear a teenage voice, three rows in front. ‘Aw, Mum,’ she whines. ‘It’s not half as good as Virgin. There’s no seatback videos on the bloody plane.’