The Passenger Who Squatted

Years ago, another lifetime it seems, I was preparing to drive from Nairobi to Machakos Technical Institute for the Blind when someone requested that I pass by that eternally chaotic country bus station called Machakos “airport” and kindly offer this blind stranger a ride.

We both had the same destination, Stranger and I. I said, Ok. I hadn’t given any thought to how I would recognize a total stranger among a fluid crowd of countless beings who moved in and out and through each other, breathing each other’s wind, disappearing in and out of buses belching black smoke ever so casually.

I had been to that “airport” without a car before, and I too never noticed the toxic fog that filled up one’s lungs and nobody cared, nobody complained, nobody had any mind to fight because Right was an ideal too surreal, too removed from the chocking need for daily survival. Many in that fluid crowd woke up every day with a simple prayer- that they would race the day’s sun and touch the edge of the coming night’s frayed blanket and know they still had breath of life to race the next day.

I shifted the gears on my aunt’s Toyota DX and bullied my way through the bedlam of Nairobi city traffic and its maze of humanity like a pro, a thing I couldn’t do now, having gotten too used to a more orderly way of driving in another country where lanes matter, traffic lights are obeyed, and metal gives way to mortals.

I pulled over to a Machakos-bound bus and immediately saw my passenger. I knew it was him because he was the only one who had a blind cane. I came out of the car, we exchanged greetings, and I guided him to the back seat. I opened the door and asked him to get in. He felt the frame of the car door, felt the window, and felt the emptiness of the entrance. He paused, shot his sightless gaze upwards as if searching the heavens for something.

I said to him- there’s no one there, the seat is all yours. He inched forward with trepidation. His cane was caught in the door frame and I folded it up for him. Then he felt the seat with his foot and for a moment I thought he had missed the floor of the car where his feet are supposed to res. He pulled out his foot, lowered his head to fit into the door frame, sat down, the pulled his legs inside, lifted himself just so, and squatted there with both his feet and dusty shoes resting on the clean cushioning of the seat together with his buttocks. I was mortified! I quickly asked him to put his feet on the floor, silently hoping his shoes had not left a gunk of grime I would have to soap up and scrub clean.

He sensed annoyance in my tone and mumbled something like an apology while touching his folded cane for familiar comfort. He gingerly pulled out his legs from his squatting position and found the floor with his feet. We were soon on our way, and with the soothing hum of the highway, the moment of mortification was forgotten. We talked. I learnt he was born without sight, and that he took the bus all the time to the Blind Institute.

I could tell he was a poor man, which was inconsequential since so many of us in that city were poor. In a village of old people, creaking bones raise no eyebrows. I was young, in my early-mid twenties, perpetually broke, but never doubted that I had a destination far more fulfilling than what the hustles of an African cosmopolis had to offer a hungry artist and college graduate. This stranger was going to better himself at a training institute. He too would one day rise above the mediocrity of dusty shoes and packed buses in spaces that pretended to be airports.

Then it came to me. He had no idea how a saloon car is configured, never been in one, he said. He had experienced a bus, and a bus allowed him to board upright and either stand or take a seat which was high enough from the floor of the bus, and all without the need to fold his cane. Having to enter a saloon car for the first time in his life, one he could not see, put him in a bind. The seat must have felt as if it was on the same level with the floor. After all, a Toyota DX is a pretty small car. I did a mea culpa for getting angry with his squatting on the seat cushion, and immediately wished he was more forceful in standing up for himself. Something about subservience disturbs me.

I feel frustrated about our blindness to greater possibilities that we don’t see but deserve. Perhaps we fear to suffer shame for exposing our neediness. We fear the loss of what is familiar when we decide to dare to demand another experience, one with greater dignity, free from the pushing and shoving of a hustling humanity for whom being civil is a time-wasting luxury. Breaking the cycle of need and indignity demands we surrender the comforts of victimhood, feel our way around new ideas, and step into new spaces, even if we get it wrong the first, second or third time.

We got to the Institute, and I watched my passenger happily greet his friends and disappear into a world whose acceptance was as warm as the light behind his eyes.

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