A line of young children waited outside of the doorway of a mud hut with a thatched roof. With bare feet, dirty clothes, and school-issued bright-blue sweaters, the children smiled and laughed as they anxiously fidgeted. What was the occasion? These kids were lined up for the opportunity to touch a white person for the first time, and I was that white person in the hut.
The year was 1996, and I was in a remote part of the Western Highlands of Kenya, near the border with Uganda. I was working as a representative of the International Crane Foundation (as in birds, not machinery). The International Crane Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of cranes and the wetlands that cranes depend on. I had just completed an internship as an aviculturist at the organization’s captive breeding facility in Baraboo, Wisconsin, when I received an unexpected phone call from George Archibald, co-founder and chief executive officer. George asked me if I would be interested in working on a project in Kenya. After picking my jaw off the floor, I thought about it for two seconds and accepted; a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Africa.
My work in rural Kenya gave me the opportunity to meet many wonderful people who live under challenging circumstances, far off the grid. One day, while walking along a dusty trail with a community leader, a woman passed by with a baby dangling from a colorful sling on her back. As soon as the baby saw me, he let out a shriek and started to cry from his perch.
I laughed and wondered aloud what that was all about. My colleague smiled and explained that it was very unusual to see a white person in that part of Kenya, so it was probably the first time that the young child had seen such a creature. He then went on to tell me that some of the young children in the village believed that, if they touched a white person, the white person would bleed. It certainly wasn’t a widely held belief, but it was still out there.
That last bit of information explained a few of my experiences while riding in those death traps known as “matatus.” A matatu is a privately owned vehicle that functions as a bus of sorts. Matatus come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. The only things that all matatus have in common are faulty brakes, reckless drivers, full loads, and loud horns. Where I worked, most of the matatus came in the form of small, beat-up pickup trucks with shells that covered the truck bed. Aside from walking on foot or riding a bike, matatus were the most common form of transportation in the area.
The goal of the matatu owner is, of course, to make money. And the best way to make money is to pack the vehicle with as many people as possible on three long benches, which run along the three walls inside the shell. Next, the center aisle would be filled with people who had to stand with their back hunched under the low ceiling of the shell. Small animals were welcome in this area too. Luggage generally went on top of the matatu along with a few more people. Any remaining stragglers would climb up to form a row along the back bumper of the truck and hang on to the outside of the shell. The combination of faulty brakes, fast driving, and heavy loads predictably resulted in a lot of accidents and fatalities.
A typical matutu in the Western Highlands of Kenya
I was staying in a fantastic tent at Sirikwa Safaris, near Saiwa Swamp National Park, hosted by Jane Barnley. There were no phones in the area (in 1996), so if I wanted to make a phone call or pick up mail, I had to squeeze into one of these matatus for the 30- to 60-minute drive to the nearest town called Kitale. This was before the days of widespread smart phones. To make a call, I would get in line at the post office to use one of a handful of phones—a process that could take another hour or two, depending on the line—so I didn’t make many calls.
My awesome tent at Sirikwa Safaris
The local matatus didn’t operate on a set schedule. When they were “full,” they departed, and “full” was determined by an aggressive matatu director who evaluated the amount of cash collected, the number of people clinging to some part of the vehicle, and the potential for more customers to arrive anytime soon. (“Soon” is a loosely defined word in Africa.)
If you paid the matatu director enough money, he could persuade the driver to depart, despite a relatively empty load. After collecting your payment, the director and driver would still try to pick up as many people as possible along the way, but at least the payment got the vehicle rolling towards your destination. Former aviculture interns who work in rural Africa aren’t high up on the salary ladder (I’m not sure the pay even qualifies you to be in the same room as the ladder), so I never paid the premium to get the vehicle rolling.
When I first arrived, the matatu directors usually tried to charge me a higher mzungu—“white-person” rate—compared to the other passengers, despite the fact that I looked anything but rich. In my dirty jeans, hiking boots, a well-worn shirt that was stained with daily applications of mosquito repellent, and with a hairstyle created after eight hours in a sleeping bag, my looks didn’t scream money. But I was white, and that’s all that matters in many parts of Africa. White equals rich. End of story.
My typical work outfit
After a few weeks, the matatu directors and drivers figured that I must be staying awhile, and they routinely greeted me with a local handshake and abandoned further attempts at price gouging. I paid the normal rate, climbed in, and waited for the matatu to be considered full. This could take five minutes, an hour, or more. You could only predict your arrival with a margin of error of one or two hours, assuming that you are traveling a short distance; the margin of error for long journeys was measured in days, not hours.
This was quite a change from where I had been living the previous year: Switzerland. In the land of mountains, chocolate, and fancy watchmakers, I could set my watch based on the arrival and departure of trains. In Africa, time is just a suggestion. If you arrived at your destination within a few hours of the estimated time, then you were on time.
As you may have gathered, seat selection was important in the world of matatus. The worst spots were usually the two corners where the benches met. If it was a busy day, you were virtually guaranteed to be smashed on both sides by the people seated next to you. Plus there was the bonus of having a few armpits stuck in your face from the people standing in the aisle, with their arms reaching up to the ceiling for balance. Seatbelts and air conditioning did not exist. It was hot, it was crowded, and the smell of body odor was strong. If someone coughed or sneezed, you would invariably wear and inhale whatever came out. Feeling lucky?
The best strategy that I could determine, other than walking, was to find a seat where I could stick my face as close as possible to an open window. But not all matatus had windows, let alone open ones. This is why I earned the local nickname “the mzungu who walks.” But, on rainy days or on journeys that were more than 6 miles roundtrip, I rolled the dice and hopped on a matatu.
Given that I was naïve, kind, and polite, I often found myself in one of the two undesirable corner spots, which should have guaranteed some serious body smashing. However, on several occasions, and particularly when children were seated next to me, I found that there was no body contact at all. It appeared as if the kids were contorting their bodies to avoid touching me. I couldn’t tell if they were just being polite or if I smelled bad, or both. But, after my colleague’s disclosure during that walk along the dusty trail, I now had a hunch that these kids didn’t want me to start bleeding in the matatu.
So there I was, standing in a mud hut, ready to shake hands with a long line of children to put the myth to rest. Most of the kids didn’t believe in the bleeding myth. They just wanted to shake hands with a mzungu for the first time. As the children entered the hut, they became quiet. Once they were at the front of the line, they looked up at me and smiled broadly. Some eagerly said hello and extended their hand while others waited for me to act first. Many of the kids were fascinated by my blue eyes and thick blond hair, which resembled a rat’s nest. I would smile and say “Jambo” or “Habari” as I reached out to shake hands. Each child’s smile would widen after hearing my terrible Swahili, and then we would shake hands.
Local schoolchildren in their blue uniforms
It wasn’t one of those elaborate, 30-second handshakes that you encounter in many parts of Africa, which include intricate hand maneuvers that end with a finger snap produced by using the other person’s finger. This was just a simple handshake. But it did the trick, and I didn’t bleed.
Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.