September 10, 2011

Jambo! A refreshing encounter in a taxi-cab

“Good evening Madam” says Benson, in the most eloquent of Kenyan accents. “Did you enjoy your flight?” he inquires. “Yes, thank you,” I respond courteously. 

After close to 24 hours of travel, the last thing my weary mind is in the mood for is polite chatter. However, there is a gracious-ness about this gentleman that invites me to exude patience.

“Where are you from?” is the next perfunctory question in the series. “Jamaica,’’ I definitively reply. 

Bolt on Broadway

Our curiosities are equally peaked by now. Benson comments, “I see that your country produces the fastest runners in the world.”  Seated behind him, I’m not sure whether he saw the extent to which I was now beaming with pride. “Indeed,” I amicably respond. 

We readily agree that where Ethiopia and Kenya shine in terms of distance and longevity, the tiny island of Jamaica makes up for in speed. “In Kenya we are very proud of Jamaica, we like Jamaica,” he states. For me, such a compliment warrants only one response, simply, “thank you.”

Luckily my flight arrived at a time that allowed me to escape the gridlock that Nairobi’s traffic is notorious for. Having formed a bond through sports, Benson and I progress quickly to the never ending exchange about the plight of the African continent. 

According to him, the root of Africa’s problems rests with leadership. “We don’t have leadership here, what we have is king-ship.  Someone comes to [political] power in Africa and they are exalted above and beyond reproach. These same people are the ones who fought for their freedom only to turn around and suppress their fellow countryman.” I concur and add further that this is part of the human condition of developing countries and is not exclusive to Africa. 

We further muse about how to resolve this vicious and virtuous cycle.  Benson is optimistic that things are changing for the better. “I know more than my father did, and now my sons know more than me.  These breed of leaders are dying out and are [hopefully] being replaced by some with dignity and integrity.”

His words so resonate with me that I can hardly sit still in the back of the car. Having been away from Africa for close to six weeks, for a variety of reasons, mainly personal, I had very conflicting feelings about my return. My exchange with Benson re-affirmed why I do the work I do – humanitarianism – and my reason for being in Africa.  For anyone, especially those of us who are of African descent and who have had the opportunity to travel to Africa, one of the things that is immediately apparent, especially in countries like Kenya and Uganda, [proud] Africans make no apologies for being black.  Speaking of blackness is celebrated rather than being seen as politically incorrect and/or sensitive. 

Benson understands the power of the spoken word.  He says, “in Africa, we are always saying that we are poor people.  I see young people on the street, men especially, saying that they are looking for a job.  What is a job?  When you find work, then you have a job.  God gave us two hands.  Use them for work, this creates a job.  The problem in Africa is that we’ve lost our dignity” – I interject to share with him that I feel the same way about Jamaica. “When one has no dignity then there is no integrity and without integrity, a man is a lunatic.” Benson is now passionately atop his proverbial soap box and a captive audience indeed he finds in me.

Imagine this:  Benson isn’t just a taxi driver. In fact for four years he was the country director for an established NGO operating in Kenya. Sadly their programme ended due to lack of funding. Like every other business across the planet caught in the current economic crisis, trying to make the world a better place becomes increasingly challenging with each passing day as the pendulum sways violently and unpredictably on the currency markets. 

As the bread-winner, Benson chose to transform his love of driving into making an income for his family. “I love to take care of people, and in my job as a taxi driver I get to meet incredible people like you who share my vision of making a difference to my country and the world.”

As we approach my hotel, I acknowledge Benson for our heart-felt conversation stating that he will never understand the extent and impact of our exchange on my life right now. Through sharing with another compassionate human being, my hopes and visions in life for Jamaica, Africa and the rest of the world have been renewed and restored.

For those who are fortunate to live in a part of the world where one’s wants far surpasses their needs, there is a tendency [understandably], to take the ability to live – not survive but live – for granted.

Alighting from the taxi in front of the hotel, I looked directly into Bensons’ eyes and thanked him from my heart for our conversation foremost, and for bringing me safely to my hotel. As I shook his hand firmly, I was awash with a deep and overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity to be alive and here right now, in Africa.

This largely forgotten land, full of complexities, polarities and wonders is beyond a shadow of my doubt the seat of civilization. Perhaps this explains why it has this raw, untamed ability to seep so seductively under skins, stirring our souls and shaking our hearts.

Thank you Mama Africa for reminding me of who I am, intrinsically.

Jambo:  means hello or welcome in Swahili


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