It was a few minutes to 2pm. Nairobi was boiling hot.
At the country bus station, popularly known as ‘Machakos Airport’, Ms Esnah Bosire sat with her three children on their suitcases, sacks and other luggage, covering her head with a leso (shawl), while her children used their jackets to protect themselves from the scorching sun.
The family was among dozens of others awaiting buses to Kisii. There were also several lone travellers. Many of them had waited for more than four hours with no signs of a bus.
Nearby, buses bound for Kitale, Webuye, Bungoma, Busia and other towns in Western were full to capacity as conductors and their handymen lifted heavy beds, sofa sets and huge sacks onto roof racks.
The city’s biggest and busiest bus station was hustling and bustling in apocalyptic frenzy, with hundreds of travellers milling around revving vehicles spewing diesel fumes and handcart pushers having a busy day ferrying people and their stuff to and from buses.
Scenes such as these are characteristic of the travel fervour that grips city residents during the holiday season, and it is only March… so, what gives?
Window of opportunity
“I’m going with my children back to our village home in Kisii. We don’t want to catch the rapidly spreading coronavirus. We will stay there until things normalise and schools are reopened,” Ms Bosire said.
The housewife, said she saw a window of opportunity to travel after the government closed all schools, although her husband, who is the breadwinner, has to remain behind.
In an Eldoret-bound bus, a middle-aged man sat pensively as he waited for it to fill up. He was alone. The bus would pass through Bungoma and Kitale on its way to the North Rift town.
“I’m going to prepare my homestead in the village. Business has been affected and so we have decided to relocate. I’m going to make everything ready so that by next week, they can join me,” he said.
“This disease is serious and there is no way I can allow it to find me or any of my family members in Nairobi. That is why I’ve made this decision,” he added.
On a row of seats behind the man sat Ms Janet Achieng’ with her brother and two children.
She had decided to take the children to her mother in the village before she returns to the city to continue with her work.
“I requested two days off from work to take my children home. I can protect myself against the coronavirus, but I won’t take chances with my children.
“It’s better I take them to their grandmother,” she said.
Further up the dusty streets leading to ‘Machakos airport’ at the North Rift Shuttle terminus on Mfangano Lane, right in the heart of the city, close to 200 passengers waited anxiously to be driven to Eldoret and Kitale. However, the vehicles were scarce, travellers many, and the waiting long.
Faces drenched in sweat and contorted in anxiety painted a grim picture of desperation.
“I booked a ticket at 9am and I’ve been waiting to board the vehicle to Eldoret since.
“I still haven’t known what time I’m going to board the vehicle because the queue is still long and there are no vehicles,” said another anxious traveller.
The student from the Kenya Institute of Professional Studies was travelling back home after the college closed.
She said she had never, in all her frequent travels west and back to Nairobi, seen such long lines and a determined struggle to catch rides.
The operators said the crisis had persisted for the last three days.
“Because of the many customers we have been receiving, the fare has increased. People are travelling in large numbers due to fear of the coronavirus. They are desperate,” said Mr Samuel Maina, a bus company clerk.
He said buses are filling up quickly, but not half as fast in returning to the city as the lines are building.
A bus operator pointed out that another reason for the delay was that while there were many people westward bound, there were much fewer coming to Nairobi.
Vehicles were spending a lot of time upcountry waiting for city-bound travellers.
“Most of our frequent travellers to Nairobi are traders who come to buy goods to stock their shops.
“The Covid-19 outbreak has affected them and they are no longer coming,” the bus operator said.