For a split-second, I feel the dhala-dhala actually suspend in mid-air. The entire vehicle shakes and quivers as it rebounds over each knot and divot in the road. I focus my eyes on a screw that holds the ribs of the ceiling vault together and watch it vibrate. I am in the rear of a mini-van without seatbelts, jammed between some well-endowed mama and Ross’ left shoulder, white-knuckling my market basket filled with this week’s groceries.
Between the jostling bodies that fill the van, I get random, triangle snap-shots of the story up front. A bike with a basket of chickens tied to the back swerves off the road, a grandmother led by a younger woman dives to get out of the way, people scatter left and right, all hazed in a cloud of particulate matter. We have stepped onto Mrs. Frizzle’s magic school bus.
A passionate religious or political speech blares from crackling speakers, overwhelming the radio airwaves. A woman in the seat in front of me is swaddled in bright, African prints so completely that I can only see her eyes. The evening air smell of cooking fires mixes with the faint onion scent of working people. I hold the base taste of dust in my mouth and refocus my eyes to the horizon.
The sun, red and round now, sinks into the tin and grass roofs of the houses and dukas along the road. I glance at my wristwatch and grimace inwardly thinking of the bike ride home on bush trails. The dhala-dhala stops to let passengers off every few blocks. The light outside dips, and they turn on a small bulb hot-wired into a hole in the ceiling. A mosquito hovers in midair. The speaker blares on.
We get to our stop and step off. The dhala-dhala roars away. We tie our basket of groceries and our clean laundry onto the backs of our bikes and begin to peddle against time, but twilight has fallen. In a few moments, I can barely make out the moon’s dull glow reflecting off of the silver wheel shield on the back of Ross’ bike.
“This is stupid,” I think, “We should have left town earlier.” The sky is royal blue and the palm trees dotting the landscape that we ride through look like giant purple dandelions. I feel like I am in an abstract night scene from George MacDonald’s Lilith. We bump along the sandy trails blindly, wishing for streetlights.
I loose my focus of the landmark reflection on Ross’ bike for a second and swerve off of the path into some prickly bushes. We turn from the snaky sand trail to the main road that the language school is on, the last leg of our journey. Suddenly, we hear a faint voice from behind cry, “Kelas!”
Did I hear that right? I think. Again I hear it.
“Kelas!” Kelas is the name that Ross goes by in the village because “r” is sometimes mispronounced “l” around here. A bright yellow light, a perfect circle, swings into view. I squint my eyes and barely decipher two figures on a bicycle. “Kelas! Rehema. Rehema and Mwafifu!” the voice repeats. Suddenly, I recognize the voices and laugh with relief and pleasure. Our friends from the village have come to rescue us. They have come to escort us home with the light on their bike. Rehema jumps off of her bike and gives Ross and I a quick talking-to in Kiswahili at a rate that is much faster than I can grasp. She hops on the back of Mwafifu’s bike, they take the lead, and the glow of their yellow light illuminates our way home.