Thursday, July 11, 2013

Once Upon a Matatu

We had been married six WHOLE months when we landed as eager new missionaries in Nairobi, Kenya.

We were in Kenya to be mentored by long time missionaries, to survey various mission points and to allow my mind and heart to adjust to this very foreign, very new world.

Jeff, being the more experienced in all things East Africa, had conceived a plan. The Plan, if you will, for Cheryl’s Optimal Cultural Adjustment .

We were staying in the home of Larry and Diane Stephens. Larry and Jeff are second cousins. Or first cousins once removed. (I can never keep that straight.)


The Stephens were (are) family. They were feeding us, helping us get settled and mentoring us for the next eight months.

Part I of Jeff’s COCA plan involved waking up early and traipsing to the nearest matatu stop to board a matatu delving straight into the depths of downtown Nairobi.

(‘Matatu’ is the name for a Kenyan public transport vehicle. A matatu may be a white mini van, a people-mover bus or a small pick-up with a canopy on the back and bench seats to hold passengers.)

Matatus are loud, crowded and brimming with danger and intrigue.

They were also the only way to town for newbies without a car.

Jeff loved the experience and laughed a lot during every matatu ride.

(I felt differently.)

(About everything)

Jeff wanted to immerse me into the (urban) culture quickly. To let me fully experience this East African world I was going to make a home in and serve among.

'Gradual’ was not really on Jeff’s radar. (still isn’t)

All or nothing. Head first.

All in.

I had waited so long to be in the Official Missionary world that I embraced Jeff Cash’s Plan with vigor.

I marched to my first matatu experience full of confidence and inspiring hope.

I was eager and thrilled to get started.

We had plans of practicing our newly acquired Swahili phrases. We were going to shop in the Nairobi markets and pick up a few needed items. We were going to wander the streets and absorb the culture.

We were going to Bond.

Jeff couldn’t wait and I latched on to his confidence, trusting and believing I was made for this.



(That pesky little varmint.)

Downtown Nairobi undid me.

I had walked straight into a wall of Extreme.

And I lost it.


It was the smell. And the staring. (I was SO white! How had I never seen this before?!)

It was the shouted-in-my-direction Swahili that I could not understand.

It was the dirty streets lined with people hurting and asking for help. Twisted, polio infected limbs. Crying babies dressed in dirty clothes. And the young girl who attached herself to my arm begging me for shoes.

It was the suffocating awareness of sticking out like a sore thumb and having not one clue of how to negotiate anything. Not one clue of how to appropriately help.

I felt lost. And alone in my fear.

My intense flood of emotion manifested in a frustrating torrent of tears, leaving me a wreck and our time in downtown Nairobi stressful and harried.

This happened several times until Jeff wisely scaled back our adjustment goals. We made plans that negotiated my strain and put only one item on the to-do list.

  1. Get in and out of downtown Nairobi without Cheryl crying.

Lofty goal.

A goal we almost achieved. Once.

We had enjoyed a wonderful day. We were both a little surprised by this, but accepting the gift nonetheless.

Our mid morning departure from Larry and Diane’s housing area had allowed us a trip into town on a non-crowded matatu. This meant that every seat was full, but there were no extra travelers. A miracle really.

We completed every errand in town (another miracle), enjoyed lunch and then made our way back to the return matatu two full hours ahead of rush hour.

All of this was accomplished sans weeping.

We were ecstatic!

I was chatty as we made our way to the taxi park. I was chipper.

The day had felt, controllable. Maintained. Not yet comfortable, but manageable.

We climbed on a small bus (people-mover size) that was painted neon green with graffiti-esque words scrawled on the side. We chose a small empty bench seat and sat close together as we waited for departure.

(Golden Rule of East African Public Transport: Nothing moves empty.)

(What I am about to tell you is NOT an exaggeration.)

We sat for several hours. Hours.

And watched as the entire population of Nairobi boarded our matatu. (Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration.)

When the matatu finally began to crawl out of downtown, there were two more bodies on our tiny bench seat with us and people were shoved into the space at our feet and in every breathable space around us.

It felt surreal.

We had considered disembarking as the crowds poured in, but upon watching a mob of passengers OVER TURN a nearby mini van with their shoving aboard, we decided we were safer to stay on the more solid bus.

I was pushed into the side of the matatu with Jeff blocking me from all the pressing masses behind us. Both of us were thankful for the window we had chosen to sit next too. We had fresh air for the moment but that was our only comfort.

We could barely turn our heads. There were people crammed into the aisles and every free space.

Looking back I can realize that EVERYONE was miserable and even in pain to be shoved into such a space in such a way. But at the moment, in the throes of pure culture shock, I felt assaulted and harassed.

Jeff spoke into my ear, “I don’t know how we are going to get off of this thing.”

Followed by: “Cheryl, do you think you can get out of that window?”

I reminded him, with panic, that I was wearing a dress and a window escape would not be modestly possible.

Had I known what was coming I would have reevaluated that answer.

A few stops before ours, Jeff took hold of my skirt and tried to pull me with him against the crowd of people in a futile effort to move us closer to an exit.

We did not move at all. But we did aggravate the people smashed all around us.


Jeff realized that when the few escaping passengers disembarked at the stops there was a momentary surge of outward motion that we could take advantage of.  Several stops later Jeff acted with the surge and pulled me again, this time negotiating us to a standing position.

It was awful.

I was pulled tightly through people’s parts and places becoming well acquainted with strangers in a way that robbed all of us of dignity.

Somehow in that press of motion, Jeff and I got separated. He ended up standing with his head cocked sideways under the too-low-for-his-tall-frame ceiling in a clump of passengers in front of me.

I was smashed in the middle of a clump of men. All men. And there was not one iota of space to leave any room for non-violating touch.

They were all around me and all over me.

Again, looking back, I am aware that those men did not do one thing wrong or have any negative intent for me. They were simply standing and waiting. Smashed up against me.

But all I knew in that moment was that they were touching me and I did not like it. And I wanted out.

Jeff remarkably contorted his body to face mine and spoke over the noisy din of passengers to exhort, “Don’t cry Cheryl!”

But it was too late.

The tears were pouring already.

We stood in this mass of miserable pressing for a long time. We would push forward at every stop but could not get off. It was remarkable really. Folks would disembark, but the matatu tout (guy who takes the money) would then press more people on so quickly that those of us away from the door could not get out.

Jeff tried to encourage and coax me to positive thinking. But I couldn’t meet his eyes without crying more.

I was miserable in a whole new way.

It is amazing how one overwhelming culture shock moment can make everything seem impossible.

I was trying to hold on to perspective, but it was slipping quickly.

Finally, after missing yet another stop, Jeff loudly declared, “I’m getting off!”  and lifting the people around him disappeared into the surge in front of us.

I began to push after him with much more urgency, but I could not move. I only succeeded in frustrating the men around me. Their Swahili directives sounded harsh in my ears and only increased my already maxed out stress level.

I entered an all out panic.

I could not see or hear my husband, and I feared that the vehicle would move ahead with me on board and my husband by the side of the road.

I thought very ugly thoughts in that moment. 

All of a sudden, outside of the inner chaos, we heard something hit the side of the matatu, loudly.


Everyone immediately silenced and froze to hear Jeff’s loud voice proclaim, “Give me my wife!”

Every single dark eye on that over-packed matatu trained lividly on my red, weepy face.

I couldn’t breathe.

In front of me a dark hand snaked through the mash of people and took hold of my shirt sleeve and began to tug.

I closed my eyes and felt myself move through the sea of people.

I was plunged again through the places and the parts and the humanity until I finally emerged (like childbirth) into the fresh air and light on the side of that Kenyan road.

The frazzled and rumpled matatu tout was glaring at my husband, who paid our shillings and led me away from the chaos to walk down the road. We were finally out. But we were very far from our destination.

There were fields and empty space all around us. We were well outside of town and (Jeff guessed) about 10 miles from Larry and Diane’s home. The sun was dropping at the horizon and we would soon be ensconced in the dark of night. It was not a good time for two foreigners to be wandering country roads by foot.

Jeff directed me down the road in the right direction while I gave way to the ugliest of all ugly cries.

Out of respect to Kenyan culture, we were not holding hands as we walked or touching each other at all. So Jeff reached out to me in the way that he could.

He started to sing.

(I wish this story was about to wrap up into a nice little happy ending. But this is not the case, yet. Consider yourself warned.)

He chose, “God is so Good.”

With a heart full of all things crushed and bruising, I turned to my husband of 6 WHOLE months and glowered, “NOW is NOT the time!”

It was lovely.

(And not EXACTLY the ‘Paul & Silas’ moment we had read about so many times. By the way:  Singing after a beating? Wow.)

He visibly reacted to my seething glare and fell into a silent stride next to his bride who suddenly had morphed into a Woman He Didn’t Know.

We walked in silence for a few beats, when Jeff glanced up and down the road and said, “We need to get on one of these matatus going back towards town.”

He said this, almost to himself, but I heard him. And I exploded.

“What?! What did you just say?!?! Get on another matatu?!?!”

He looked at me stunned, realizing by my red face and the fuming smoke surrounding me, that he had just suggested the WRONG thing, but was unsure as to what to say next.

So he chose logic.

“Cheryl, we need to get back to Larry’s. The matatu will take us there.”

Um. No.

We were walking faster now and my response came out like bullets.

“I will never, NEVER ride a matatu again!!  I DO NOT make that kind of mistake twice. I CANNOT believe you even suggested it. NEVER again. I hate this place. And I hate matatus. And I hate…”

I caught his eye then. And stopped short of that final sentence.

But it was hanging between us like a heavy weight.

We slowed our pace and my tears continued to pour.

After a few more breaths, Jeff stopped me and turned me to face him.

He was still wielding logic.

“It is getting dark and it is not safe for us to be out here. We need to get back to the Stephens. Matatus are our only option on this road. If you won’t ride a matatu how do you suggest we get safely back to Larry and Diane’s?”

We were locked in one of those horrible stare down moments.

Over the course of those early days in Kenya I had come eyeball to eyeball with everything that I was NOT.

And it had quickly depleted my buoyant optimism into despair.

I was not really made for all of this. I was failing. I was not brave.

I was weepy. And broken. And deploringly unable.

All in front of a man I really wanted to please. And impress.

My despair was manifesting in many different ways over those days. But in that post-matatu-crush all I felt was anger. Hot, flashing anger.

I spat into that stare-down three Very. Loaded. Words.

Words I had said sweetly so very many times.

Now steamed between us as a challenge full of doubting outrage.

“God. Will. Provide.”

This Africa Thing. It was hurting me. Deep.

I could feel myself moving away from the intensity—giving up.


I was lashing out. At every creature who I deemed responsible for my current predicament.

Jeff. God.  And Myself.

(But mostly Jeff.)

Jeff and I stood locked in the stare. My words hanging between us. Neither of us knowing what to say next.

He was disappointed. And I was defeated.

Our silence felt so heavy.

All of a sudden, we became aware of a noise beside us.

We recognized the sound of a vehicle, so we shook from our staring and turned to side step clear of the road.

With amazement we watched as a beautiful cream-colored Mercedes Benz pulled off the road in front of us.

Cream-colored. Mercedes Benz.


Jeff and I both turned to look at the shiny, clean, gorgeous vehicle with shock and dismay.

The passenger window lowered and a beautiful (ethereal) British woman leaned out to say, “My you’re far from home.”

Her smile was pleasant. And the sweet scent of her perfume circled our dusty crumpled forms.

I fell toward the car.

“Yes, Ma’am. We are.”

She soothed, “Would you like a lift, Love?”

I nodded, tears flowing again. Jeff explained where we needed to go and the sweetest couple told us to get into the back seat. Jeff and I stepped into the air-conditioned, leather interior with such deep relief and me with a highly appropriate sense of remorse.

They drove us right to the Stephen’s door.

In brilliant comfort.

Completely undeserved by me.

I had so much to learn.

God’s provision would never be thwarted by my failings.

My Faithful Father would keep loving and showing up with good plans and sustaining hope. (And occasionally with a fully loaded Mercedes-Benz!)

I would ride matatus again.

All over Nairobi and Kenya and deep into Uganda.

It would never be easy or one of my most favorite things.


I would not quit.

God’s love would grow more obvious to me through many end-of-myself moments over the course of the some very bumpy miles.

Our God would be faithful.

We would never be alone.


Twenty years later I would still be walking alongside that (very handsome) man, knowing full well that he wasn’t in the practice of giving up on me.

And that gift, too, would remain completely undeserved.

But a glorious comfort.

The sweetest of mercies.

Our love. (His Provision.)  These twenty years. 


Anonymous said...

Why do I not remember this story? Thanks for sharing it again. I have to say your matatu story tops mine riding the Post bus to Ft. Portal by a mile. And God IS Good!

Jim Coffey said...

First I laughed, out loud, with gusto.

Now I'm crying. Can't see the screen.


Indira said...

This is cool!