From the Passenger Seat

“Up with Uber, down with the taxi!” Of late, the number of cab franchises has been on the rise. More and more Uber-owned cabs, ‘Little Cabs’ cars and similar vehicles are pouring onto Nairobi’s roads and topping more and more Nairobians’ lists of preferences. I recently heard someone say over a drink, “Taxis? They’re headed down a one-way street to oblivion!” His companions nodded in agreement. And why should they stay? Uber has made them obsolete, right? Uber has well-trained employees who open the door for you (or so I hear), arrive on time, ask what music you would like to listen to and, best of all, charge cheap, just prices – and if your driver tries to weight his pockets with your money when they feel lighter than would be desired, you can just report it and get refunded! Those other guys, the taxi guys, they’re all thieves, right? Right?

WRONG.

This isn’t an ‘Uber vs. taxi” article, nor is it a call to arms. No revolutions here. No cries of “Out with the invaders!” But it is a plea, an impassioned on, for truth. It is an answer to one question born of the despair that afflicts so many Kenyans: aren’t all taxi guys corrupt?

I know one man who doesn’t fit the mould – to preserve his anonymity, I’ll call him John. During working hours, wearing a simple pair of trousers and with a loose shirt draped over him, nothing sets him apart. He’s lanky but not gaunt and despite his height, he seems to consume a minimum of others’ attention. Stubble creeps in around his mouth, closing in on it as if to seal it off completely before his razor undoes everything a few days later. Most of the time, his lips are shut and when he does speak, he struggles to get the words out; they sputter, like his old car used to before he got the (marginally better) one he uses now. On the surface, he looks just like any ordinary taxi driver. Only his eyes, deep, crinkled at the corners, hint at a difference.

 

Several evenings have come by and found John and me together, sometimes sheltered in from storms that frosted the windows, other times staring at feminine lavender skies mingled with the fire of dusk while car horns blared irreverently below. Occasionally, my sister would be with us too. I remember how she’d chat with John about all kinds of things as he drove. He would ask questions, a rare animation lighting up his face; the words would flow out eagerly. Slowly, she would drift off to sleep. I remember how John looked at her. how he smiled, how the unshaven roughness of his face became so gentle, how the tender fire burned in his eyes as he looked at the little girl, like her father would.

 

John had his weaknesses, as we all do. He’d throw up his hands in vexation when a matte overlapped, drive straight into traffic jams after choosing the worst routes then get anxious and angry, click his tongue at other drivers and murmur at them under his breath…. He was not immune to temptations. He fought them. He stopped at red lights, even though he was the only one doing it; he only overtook on the dotted line; he stayed still to let stranded pedestrians cross the death trap we call Waiyaki Way….

In fact, one evening, John had just dropped me off at home and after he left, I realized my trousers were feeling somewhat lighter than usual. Shock came. Anger followed. I plunged my hand into my right pocket to call him – emptiness. I checked again just to be sure. Nothing. Frustrated, I turned it inside out. A few pieces of lint floated lightly to the ground. Just then, my brother’s phone rang – it was John!

Half an hour later, John was standing outside the house. “You left your phone in my car. I only realized when I got home.” His voice was warm, gentle, simple.

 

Corrupt? A thief? No. An unsung hero. And where there is one, there are many. To paraphrase a certain wise man’s words: where evil abounds, goodness abounds all the more. You just have to look for it.


More “Stories of Nairobi” coming out after two weeks! Stay tuned!

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