Back in the day (five years ago), Ukasi was the point where the road ground to a halt. There was still road ahead, it stretched on and on for miles, but Ukasi was the end of the-sing-along-eat-along-road-trip-banter. You could tell by the number of vehicles – PSVs, land cruisers with their white flags and Codan antennas; white plates, blue plates, red plates, all stopping short of the invisible line on the road. The mood was always pensive, the vehicles revving to go. Some drivers, taking one last tinker at the bothersome nut – heaven forbid it should fall off, and with it, its vehicle from the speeding convoy!
The rules were simple – the only speed limit was the lowest you could go; you could not fall off the convoy; you could not stop for anything or anyone. The unspoken rules were simple too – you kept your mouth shut and your eyes wide open. You dared not fall asleep. Your breathing was at once muted and loud. If from the corner of your eye, you caught sight of a dangerous glint, you mumbled a prayer for the Nth time. You thought of all the things you should have done before this trip; all the things you vowed to do ‘the instant’ you got back.
Ukasi has not changed much. The buildings are still few, the vegetation just as scanty. But the convoys are no more. We turn our heads – not just the corners of our eyes, to the view outside the windows. Acacias and Baobabs look back, unperturbed. Closer to Garissa, we notice another species of plant. Polythene bags flapping incorrigibly from branches and twigs, black tongues sticking out of barren soil, plastic bottles lolling in the hot sand. Weeds that will surely be the bane of life, as we know it.
Suddenly, a patch of luscious green pops out of the thorny landscape. The Garissa bridge beckons and the Tana River ambles on underneath. Serenity at its best, except for the checkpoint, sitting smack in the middle of the bridge. The armed personnel wave us through. It feels like one of those places worthy of a sign that begins ‘You are now entering…’
The hotel is something else. It gives new meaning to the word oasis.
Dinner is Ugali and goat fry…at least that’s what we ordered. What we eat though, is thick porridge and goat fry. Serves us right! I mean, what the heck were we thinking ordering ugali in Garissa? We enjoy it as best we can, and then it is bedtime.
The dance of darkness begins. Matters, personal hygiene swiftly dispensed with, I lay on the bed and wait for sleep. It’s been a long day; the night promises a different kind of long. I’m too tired to think, but the thoughts come gushing in. Images of stricken students; half-dressed; running barefoot across the field; the sound of gunfire hot on their heels. Not sure when thought and dream went to bed together, but they take my mind with them. The dance of darkness continues.
I wake up to pitch black. Time check, 2am. I need a bathroom break. I blink and wait for the darkness to lift. It does not. I reach for the light switch and freeze. What if right that minute, ‘THEY’ were out there positioning themselves? What if, by flipping the switch, I was alerting them to a lone night bird? The purring AC sounds suddenly too loud. I promptly put it to sleep. Belatedly, I wonder if perhaps I’ve drawn their attention to the now quiet AC. What if they choose me as target zero? I remember that my room is right next to stairs…would I even have a fighting chance? Earlier, during our tour of the hotel grounds, I’d noted an exit hidden in the trees. Assuming I got that far, would I find them waiting?
My mind, and the rest of my body decide that the venture to the bathroom, a few short steps away, is far too risky. We vote to ‘minimize movement’ until it is safe to come out. But my bladder, my stubborn, stubborn bladder hears none of it. It scoffs and bides its time. In tandem with the decision to remain in bed, I go online and read all the messages I’d been too tired to read earlier. I write a few messages of my own. But everyone, it appears, is asleep. I’ve never been so desperate for company.
Meanwhile, my bladder makes it known that it, not I, was boss. What’s a woman to do, but creep stealthily to the bathroom and back! Finally, I drift off, and when next, I open my eyes; the room is flooded in glorious sunlight.
The day’s activities include a visit to the scene of Kenya’s most gruesome attack in recent times. ‘Garissa University College’, the writing screams on the wall. The armed Police Officer takes our IDs and points us in the general direction of the memorial. Inside the compound, it is deeply serene. A cloud of uncertainty shadows our steps. The hairs on our napes prickle in awareness of our surroundings. It does not help that the compound is a ghost town – the students are on a short break.
At the memorial, we stand in silence. 148 names stare back at us.
We are met by the Assistant Dean. He insists that we must be ‘properly inducted’ through this chapter of our history.
“Feel free.” He tells us.
He walks with us back to 5am on that fateful day. He points out the hostels where there students were holed up. Even the hostel where the girls were lured out to their deaths with the promise that they would not be harmed. He points out the field across which the students ran to the fence. He narrates how he jumped over the fence and found a group of students, who even under those, most difficult of circumstances, still looked to him for leadership. So he assembled them, and together, they wandered in search of a police station. And when finally they stumbled upon a military base, they stopped frozen, their arms raised in surrender, at the sight of the armed man with his gun pointed at them. They’d spent the last couple of hours running away from the very thing that was now trained at them.
They were done running.
“We were half dressed,” He reminds us “most of us were barefoot or shirtless. We must have looked like a bunch of trouble makers!” He smiles. “We just stood there until he came over and heard our plight.”
The ensuing hours were long. They waited with bated breath for news that it was over. When the news finally came, it brought with it the staggering number 1-4-8.
Looking at the Assistant Dean, I see no sign of defeat. Behind his sad smile, I see proof of the resilience of the human spirit. After the attack, all the surviving students were relocated to other campuses.
He came back.
“We are back on our feet,” He tells us with one final smile “Take this information with you.”