Many years ago, when my aunt did not know we would take as long as we are to get married, she used to say to us: “Pray for your future husband all the time and everywhere, even as you enter that Taxi, right before…he could be in there.”
The taxis spoke of are not sleek yellow sedans that pop up when you type ‘taxi’ into Google and click images. (I don’t know hat will pop up in your time, maybe be even an actual taxi?) The taxis she spoke of are minivans in Kampala. They have dashes of blue around their midriff to set them apart from all the other minivans. Some of these minivans are blue and grey…but most of the ones in Kampala are white. Last week, I chanced upon a yellow one. I have never seen a yellow taxi before. They are never in exciting colors such as red or turquoise, with good reason. Taxis swing about Kampala’s landscape with the exact confidence and precision of the Knight bus in the Harry Potter series (I will have read these to you when you were younger, they are in a suitcase under one of your aunt’s beds waiting, because I haven’t decided what I want my bookshelf to look like). Taxi drivers seem to expect permanent fixtures such as pavements and fountains or even other cars, to jump out the way to accommodate them. As you stand at the ‘stage’ they literally come out of nowhere… and park within inches of your feet. And the conductor will go ahead to calmly ask you, “Ogenda? (Are you going)”. The chaos they wreak is such that adding colour would just drown this dusty city. The drab colours are, I suppose, meant to disguise and tone down the amount of drama.
These minivans also have a T painted on the driver’s door to further set them apart from other minivans, but in all honesty, there needn’t be. These vehicles bear battle wounds of all sorts, that even without the color, you’d be able to set them apart. Visitors like to call them Matatus. Ugandans refuse to call them as such. For many reasons, one of which is that Kenyans came up with the term and technically, Matatus have a more rogue personality than Taxis do…or so we like to believe.
Taxis are licensed to carry 14 passengers. That is the fine print on each of these metal boxes, next to the T on one of the front doors. This fine print has only recently become into practice over the last 10 years or so. Prior to this, a taxi could carry even 18 passengers. Of course the 14 passengers do not include the conductor, so back then, he was the 19th passenger. Each row, meant to seat three, usually sat four instead. In fact, to make sure they collected as much fare as possible, these men declined to ferry passengers who were beyond a certain size. It was a difficult time to be ‘gifted’. On some days they would even encouraged passengers to seat on the ‘kameme’. The kameme is the hot box behind the driver’s seat. There’s a handlebar for you to hold onto when you seat on this hot box. A lot of the time it was children like me, travelling with aunties (who couldn’t be bothered to let us seat on their laps) that got to seat on the kameme (because you travelled for half fare or free of charge if you sat in this spot). Many a derriere is beyond the redemption of squat exercises today because of this hot seat.
Normally a taxi ride starts out quietly. I like to wear plug my ears with my earphones. I never play the music though, I like to observe in case an interesting conversation materializes…as they are wont to do when 14 people are listening to tabloid radio in a confined space.
It was 11:30 and I was already a little miffed when the taxi ground to a halt in front of me. It had taken me 30 minutes to flag one that was going my way. The last thing on my mind was praying for “my husband”.
A metal jutting out of a cushion scratches my calf as I try to navigate my way to the back seat by the window. I can feel a line swelling in the area when two young-ish gentlemen enter and occupy the the seats in front of me. The mid-morning is already sending a lazy warm breeze through my window when I feel someone seat next to me. I do not turn to look and I eventually hear the conductor slam the door shut.
A memory of my friend telling me of his craziest taxi encounter surfaces as I examine the green algae-like substance in the window frame. Sam had got to the end of the journey, and the taxi door would not budge. The image of Sam, a young budding lawyer in his well-pressed suit and patent leather shoes hoisting himself out of the taxi window, in broad day light makes me smile.
A local radio show host is reading a letter from a listener. The lady is calling in to ask for help. Apparently she had opened her home to her divorced sister and now suspected that her husband was sleeping with this sister. There was loud banter as one of the two men in front of me says loudly, “They both asked for it.”
A woman at the front jeers loudly and the beginning of the discussion, “What women want vs why women like to trick men” ensues. An old man in the middle seat says in Luganda something I interpret to mean: “There’s something wrong with today’s generation of men.” He does not elaborate and no one counters him.
There’s fidgeting around me 15 minutes later as the taxi comes to a stop. My neighbour prepares to alight. He stands as I put my hand into my bag. My turn to fidget, I am panicking. I can’t find my wallet. Conductors are unforgiving when they realize you do not have the fare. My neighbour is half way out when something drops from his shirt. I turn to look…It is mine. My hot pink wallet. I seem to have said thant out loud because the old man whips out his cane. I watch, perplexed, as someone’s future husband gets beaten.