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The Girl Next Door

It was about 8 O' clock, and the matatu had one passenger seated next to the divers seat, and the conductor who was seated in the matatu, probably tired or masquerading as a passenger in a bid to make the matatu not look empty. Outside , was a girl leaning along the chips shop, furiously blushing as a man about my age talked to her. I sat on the second row from the driver's seat and the engine, I have never liked seating behind the engine.

I missed her age by almost 10 years. You cannot blame me, she was dressed in a flowing jeans skirt that went down to her ankles, and though I can not remember the top, it was either a jacket or sweater. Not the manner you would expect a 17- 18 year old to be in. In addition, her handbag was not the the large type that was common with ladies in their early twenties. It was just the right size that a handbag should be. Probably a lady coming from work, it skipped me that it was Labour Day, the workers holiday. I was anxious to get home, to get to bed, and been in a matatu this late was usual on my work days.

I opened the car window as the tobacco smell wafted in my nose. I found it strange that no one was smoking, not the lone passenger and there was no one around the matatu smoking . The Matatu was not getting any fuller, it would take a while. A while later, a woman came in , with two children and luggage in the form of a small gunny bag, which was carried on the shoulder of a man accompanying them. They sat behind the engine, as the mother instructed her children to share one seat, and the man bade them good bye till the next school holiday, asking them to study hard. The man did not accompany them. No sooner had they settled down than the girl  alighted. She did not go to the nearby alternative bus stop, she went the opposite way, and stood a few meters from the vehicle, probably waiting for someone.  Just as the woman and her children were finishing settling, a Somali man came in, carrying a 10 litre jerry-can that once had cooking oil.

The yellow jerry can was placed next to me, the lid screwed on with a piece of polythene. It strongly reeked of kerosene, as the man pushed it under my seat, and moved in to sit behind me. He was followed by a teenage girl and a younger boy, probably his son. The girl caught most of my attention. Not withstanding her wavy hair under her loosely tied scarf, she was a beauty, this one would grow into a jewel. I was still ogling at the girl when she came back in, the girl who had alighted. This time she sat next to me.

I opened the car window, slightly. "Am I affecting you?" she asked, as she fumbled in her handbag, in the process exposing a matchbox. "No," I responded, as I explained to her it was kerosene smell coming from somewhere. The Somali man confirmed that the jerry can had kerosene, as I debated whether it presented a risk big enough for me to alight the matatu.

This matatu had kersoene as part of luggage on the carrier
Just over the weekend, a matatu plying the Nairobi - Mwingi route had been engulfed in flames along the Thika - Garissa highway. Reports indicate that passengers saw fire running down from the vehicle's carrier. They had run out of the vehicle, a woman throwing her baby out of the window. They stood aside and watched as the  vehicle  and the luggage on the carrier, including a jerrycan of kerosene and what another Somali man said was a stack of United Sates dollars inside a suitcase were reduced to a shell. For this reason, I am not comfortable with travelling alongside with fuel in a vehicle, unless the fuel is in a fuel tank. Even the ferries down at Likoni ferry petroleum tankers alone with no other vehicles and passengers across the channel.

I decided to stay the risk. I could jump outside the window. The girl was now applying lotion up and down her arms. She then asked if I could smell cigarette off her, and I replied negatively. The girl having taken liberty to smoke the ice out, I closed my copy of Purple Hibiscus  in anticipation of a conversation.

I asked if she stayed alone. She stayed with her parents, but why did I want to know. Its because of the great length to which she was taking to get rid of the cigarette smell.

Her parents did not know that she smoked, she had been smoking since her first year in secondary school. She did know whether the wheezy touch to her voice was as a result of smoking or not, smoking from an early age made it hard to distinguish.  Her parents knew that she drunk, they had been called to school several times when she got caught. She did not smoke often, but she was afraid of becoming an addict, a chain smoker like some of her uncles.

She did not want to stop smoking, the feel of the cigarette in between her fingers , the feeling of smoke as it went in, and out in slow puffs, was ecstatic. Once a while, they came, the headaches. Smoking one stick made them go away.  About three days a week she smoked, and every week, she drunk. She had not graduated to hard alcohol, and did not plan to, but she had an urge to drink weekly.

She never smoked at home, and she never stayed for long without smoking. A long break and the urge would come in hard, so hard that she have to smoke at home, something she had to avoid.

I asked which friend of hers had introduced her to smoking, research shows that most smokers catch the habit from their friends. Her boyfriend had introduced her to smoking and drinking. He had not insisted that she try cocaine and the other hard drugs he did. He was a first year student at the University of Nairobi then. A few years later, the police had caught up with him, trafficking drugs, and he swallowed them. Unluckily, they packaging burst in the intestines, and he overdosed to his death. His death did not stop hid father from dealing drugs, and occasionally calls the girl, offers her anything she wants, she declines, but she takes the cigars.

I tell her that she was lucky not to have tried out heroine, it takes no prisoners. One shot of heroine is one more heroine addict. Once, and you never stop feeling the urge.

The matatu arrives at our estate, the drug dealers estate safely, the estate where the drug dealers son once lived. We are lucky to arrive without the matatu bursting into flames. I no longer have to struggle to whisper as I talk to her, there are no passengers to over hear us, the kids behind with the Somali man are no longer catching snippets of our conversation.

She limps out, and continues limping. She fell off her heels, five girls fell off their heels as they rushed and jostled to be the first to buy cigarettes at a shop. It's a game they normally play, today they had to buy spirit for their bruises.

Did I know Allan? No I did not. Allan was a neighbourhood youth in the estate, who overdosed to his death, she tells me.

Her parents would be disappointed if they found out that she smoked. "What do you want, " was the dreaded question her father would ask.

By the time she has finished telling the above, we are outside her house. Her father is home, his SUV is parked in the drive way. She bumps into a friend who then takes over the conversation.

A couple of steps and am home.

She is the girl next door, in the quiet neighbourhood with barely any crime incidents.

This is a true story. 

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