Ali, the Taxi Driver from Bagamoyo

On Wednesday I met up with some American and British interns and volunteers for dinner at Zuane, an Italian restaurant here in Dar es Salaam. It’s located on the Peninsula, an area of Dar full of expats, hotels, shopping centers, and fancy restaurants. Most of the Westerners I’ve met live in this area, they know all the hotspots, the street names, the Irish pub and the one salon for non-Africans… I’m starting to feel I may have a little non-Peninsula inferiority complex. Driving around the area, especially at night, you’d never know you were in Tanzania. The clientele of Zuane is entirely “wazungu”–foreigner. With air conditioning, tablecloths, and framed pictures on the walls, you could be in any nice Italian place in the U.S. I won’t lie, it’s refreshing to enter this little oasis of the West. Sipping on chilled white wine, sampling bruschetta dipped in olive oil and basalmic, I can escape the heat and frantic feel of the city and imagine, for a moment, that the oppressive poverty I see most days is just a dream, a shadow reflected on water. But after the waiter boxed up my ricotta and spinach pizza (yes, a to-go box!),we paid the bill and headed back out into the fray.

A ways down the road our group split up, and four of us approached a cab. I’ve gotten better at bargaining over the past few weeks, and now that I know the general geography of the city I can spot an unfair price. Our cab driver looked young, had a scratchy voice that cracked on the high side, and he immediately put his foot to the pedal before he knew where we wanted to go. This is a strategy of the cab drivers–get going before you settle on a price. I got him to stop, we told him the route (stops at all corners of the city), and talked him down from 30,000 Tanzanian shillings to 17,000 (from about $22 to $13). As soon as we settled on the price, I turned to the back to talk to my friends. We talked about poker, movies, the bet we had going about how big the U.K. is compared to Ohio, etc. and I didn’t think about our driver again until the last of my friends had hopped out.

“Habari za kazi?” I said. How is work?

“Nzuri.” Good…. And then:

Do you have a boyfriend? Yes? Well, I want to be your boyfriend. I love you. I want to go to Korea with you. You’re not from Korea? Okay, America. I don’t have money. You are in Tanzania, you need a Tanzanian boyfriend. I want to be your husband. Also, pay me 20,000 shillings, 17,000 is not enough. You live very far.

Yes, very very far, I thought. I knew I needed to change the subject.

What is your name? Ali. The name of your father? Saidi. Where are you from? Bagamoyo.

Like a small red balloon that floats through my stomach and into my heart every time I hear the word, Bagamoyo.

The annoyance at the marriage proposals, the demand for more money… they faded into the background for a moment. “Do you know Jimmy? Or Temela?”

“Teacher Jimmy?” Ali asked. “Temela Hassan?”

“YES!” I was so excited to hear he knew my host father and best friend from the summer I spent in Bagamoyo in 2007. Dar es Salaam feels like a huge place to me, since I’ve never lived in a big city. Right now there are about 3 million people in the Dar es Salaam region, at the population is growing at 4.39% annually, making it the 3rd fastest growing city in Africa (and the 9th fastest in the world). Anyway, I couldn’t believe that out of the millions of the people in this metropolis I’d found one who knew my friends from 2 hours up the coast. I kept him on the subject for as long as I could, laughing about the things and places we knew in common. But after a while I realized I didn’t know where we were. “Msimbazi center! Mzimbazi center!” I said, the honey gone from my voice in an instant. He shifted uncomfortably, slowed the car. He was lost.

It took us a good 45 minutes to find out where we’d gone wrong. Tanzanians don’t like to say they don’t know something, or to give no for an answer. Instead they just don’t answer at all, which took me a couple of weeks to realize and another couple to get used to. I guess I’m still adjusting. We stopped to ask another taxi driver directions and eventually got to the gate of the compound where I live. “Pole sana, pole sana rafiki,” he said. I could tell he was genuinely sorry, and I felt a pang of guilt for my sharpness. In the 1.5 hour long ride, my feelings toward Ali had gone from indifference, to discomfort, to some small affection, to annoyance, and even to empathy. Now that we had arrived I just wanted to get to my bed. I handed him 20,000, and asked for 1,000 back (less than a dollar). He rifled around in his pockets, opened his wallet so I could see its emptiness, and looked at me plaintively. “I don’t have change.”

Finally I was angry. “What do you mean you don’t have change? You’re a taxi driver! You don’t have 1,000 shillings??” I said all this fast, much faster than he could understand. As a matter of principle, I didn’t want to be played. I was sure he had at least a few thousand shillings tucked away somewhere and just wanted to get away with hustling the mzungu. He smiled uncomfortably. I opened the car door and got out. He followed suit, and I noticed that he was about 4 inches shorter than me, no taller than 5 feet.  He told me he would go buy some cell phone credit to get some change. As we walked toward a small shop I asked him if he was sure he didn’t have just 1,000 shillings. He shook his head. “Kwa nini?” I said, exasperated, scowling. Why?

He looked at me and shrugged. “First job of day.”

This is how it is here. I go from elated to indignant to humbled in the space of a moment. Maybe “humbled” is too soft a word. Maybe “shamed” would be more appropriate. I looked at Ali, friend of my friends, and reached out my hand. He shook it. “Sawa,” I said. “It’s okay. No problem.”

“Give me your number?” he asked, as if I’d given him some hope.

“No,” I said with a smile. “Not a chance.”

He grinned back at me, and jogged back to his cab.

It’s easy to be indifferent to the struggles of others, especially coming from a place that says if you try hard enough, you will succeed. But what about the Alis of the world? All over this city there are clusters of taxis by the roadside. The drivers gather in groups to pass the time, and when I pass all I hear is, “Mchina, mchina, come here! Welcome, welcome. Taxi, sister! Taxi!” Sometimes I smile and shake my head, or say “no thank you,” and others I just look down or away and walk faster. The other day I asked a taxi driver for directions. He pointed to a spare tire where he had painted “Directions, 500 shillings.” I smiled at his ingenuity and paid him for his troubles. But he can’t make a living on giving .50 cent directions or one job a day like Ali.

I’ve had some excellent lectures from my professors at the University of Dar es Salaam about Development in Tanzania and what can and should be done. I’ve interviewed microfinance clients who have significantly improved their lives through small businesses in the informal sector, selling fruits, water, cassava, fish. I’m hopeful, I’m confident that positive change can be made. But I’m also newly aware of how easy it is to forget. My wonderful Italian dinner cost four times my share of the taxi ride. More than what Ali made that day.

It’s my opinion that guilt is not a productive place from which to approach development, social activism, or service. Awareness is. I will probably go to Zuane again. I may splurge here and there on a dress or a night out. But I won’t forget Ali, and I will try to enjoy my work and pleasure with a humble heart, conscious of how lucky I am to have the luxuries of choice and opportunity, and money in my pocket.

For me, it’s the blissful things in life that make me want to sing, to dance, to swim, to play. It’s the hard, tricky things that make me want to write. I apologize that it can make for heavy reading. The joys of life, of Dar es Salaam, sometimes seem too great to capture, but I promise they are here in abundance. Maybe someday (hopefully soon) I’ll be brave enough a writer or generous enough a soul to share them with you. Until then, wishing you all Hekima, Umoja na Amani (Wisdom, Unity and Peace),


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