“Muwogo! Those going to Muwogo! There is space for only one passenger!" the sturdy taxi conductor calls with a voice that would have been loud enough to bring down the walls of Jericho.
Oblivious of the odor of sweat mixed with cheap cologne and face cream, I squeeze through the crowd thinking only of how to get to that seat before the taxi leaves and I have to wait another hour for the next one to show up.
Above the taxi, the stage signpost is still showing the same old hiked prices that were introduced two years back during the invincible flu pandemic. You would think that after all this time these commuter taxi fellows would atleast have the courtesy to return transport fares and seat capacity back to normal but no...these fellows are clearly hell-bent on milking us drier than ever.
I take my place sighing deeply when a red eyed youth pats me on the back, "Eschuse me sir, I pass please?"
Before I know it, three other shabby youth follow him out- godforsaken placeholders! Now we have to wait longer for the car to actually fill up. Fortunately a woman and her three malnourished children get on board. Finally I can sit back, relax and hopefully enjoy the trip out of down town. As we head out, my stomach starts to grumble.
“When did I last eat?" I think. The tiny overpriced mandazi I had for breakfast at the cafeteria comes to mind. I can't believe I paid 1000 shillings for that mandazi. It even had stones in it. I beat my chest. Maybe if I was not so distracted by the cashier's large dreamy eyes I would have bought something more sensible at the same price.
Her soft luring voice replays in my head, “Tomtom my darlingi, you know these mandazis are flavouredi with lemoni and you know lemoni is expensive these days."
“But that was during the flu when everyone thought it was the cure," I had argued clearly to no effect for now I have to bear the questioning looks that my neighbor in the taxi is giving me as my stomach does its grumbling rounds.
“Ggggruuuuuh!" goes another grumble.
The malnourished children giggle through dry lips with their mother trying hard to strike a balance between scolding them for laughing at strangers and not publicly shaming them. She mumbles her apologies in my direction. I receive them but my stomach doesn't.
A few meters ahead, I spot traffic jam. The conductor tries to advise the driver to use another route but the hardheaded fellow drives us right into the middle of the jam. Sigh! Immediately hawkers storm the taxi windows fixing their street food through any available space.
“Cake, soda, biscuit? Cake, soda, biscuit?" They chorus.
I glance at the owner of the dark hand shoving roasted maize under my nostrils. A tall skinny fellow wearing a black beddazled face mask. Tiny distributaries of sweat keep trickling down his forehead to his mask but clearly his fashion knows no weather. I drop my gaze back to his face mask and a dark mood pours over me. More than the exaggerated prices of everything, I hate face masks. I hate the memories they evoke. I don't know if I hate them more for being too expensive for my late grandmother than for playing a big role in protecting my stepmother during her volunteering work at the flu front.
"How much for one cob?" I ask.
"1000 shillings only sir,"
"Why so expensive? Does it come with a lemon?"
I shut the window and get to munching my maize grateful for having gotten rid of the fellow. The traffic jam eventually clears and we are on the move once again. As I enjoy my maize, I notice the malnourished children staring at me with such famished stares that I make exaggerated bites and chewing sounds while glaring at them as my revenge for laughing at my previously grumbly stomach. I ate every last grain off the cob and even sucked the cob juice. Next time they'll remember not to laugh at elders.
"Those in the back seat send your money foward so we can get change for big money! " The now red eyed conductor screams through a puffed chest.
Notes and coins immediately start to trickle foward. The conductor receives them hurriedly and sends back the balance. He then turns to me, "Ssebbo please pay up."
Reluctantly, I fix my palm into my jacket pocket and count my coins. Oh crap! I am short by 1000 shillings. How exactly did this happen? I swear I counted exact transport fare before I left home in the morning. Meanwhile the conductor is still looking at me.
"I'll pay when I'm getting out," I blurt out buying time to think through my next step.
My wet palms start to shake. The last time I was this nervous was when my late grandmother had gotten the invincible flu. I close my eyes, count my fingers and take deep anxious breaths. The only way out is to ask my neighbor to bail me out. I gather all the courage in me and turn to face him only for him to avert his attention to the driver,"Parking, driver! I am getting out here."
The taxi comes to a halt and he jumps out before I even get to say a word. The conductor follows him out and returns with four extra passengers,"Please push behind and create some space for others."
I can't believe this man. First he makes us pay extra because of the empty middle seat rule that was introduced during the flu to maintain social distancing then along the way he decides to fix excess passengers. The nerve!
"Ssebbo since you have decided to fill the taxi I am not paying full amount!" I declare.
"Me neither!" another passenger bellows from the back.
Everyone soon joins the boycott and we all end up paying half the fare. Finally we reach my stop and I jump out of the taxi onto the feeder road. Only the heavens can describe the relief washing over me. A smile slowly caresses my face. The all too familiar scent of fresh air, mashed bananas and roses fills my nostrils. I stroll down the road home feeling safe.
"Tom, you're back late!" My stepmother screeches from the outdoor kitchen.
Oh God, not again.