July 12, 2014
My line of work requires a fair deal of travelling, whether it be planes, trains or automobiles as well as the odd ferry, tram and rickshaw. Having completed a recent assignment in London's southern fringes, I used a private taxi every day for almost six months I encountered taxi drivers of all backgrounds.
Mostly the drivers would stick to their own company asking only where I was going, taking the fare and a curt adieu would conclude the journey and transaction. However, during the latter days of my engagement I encountered three very different taxi drivers who stuck in my mind. Two of whom conversed as if we were travelers sitting around a camp fire at night on the Silk Road. The third chap cocked his ears with intrigue but kept our chat to one-liners.
My first taxi driver was of African descent in his late fifties, and upon picking me up from my place of work asked me what the company did. I explained it was a construction company and they engaged in a multitude of such activities all over the world. He further went on to ask how big was such a company.
"Well, why don't you take a guess?" I asked him.
"Twenty million pounds sales every year?" he replied sheepishly, not sure whether his answer was a pie in the sky or not.
"On this bit of work that this company is doing the value is one hundred million pounds," I replied.
"What!" he exclaimed almost hitting the anchors on the car and slightly jolting me in my seat. I checked my seat belt was fastened as my driver continued on our journey.
"Let me put it into perspective, an engineering company that supplies services to this firm had a sales turnover of twelve billion dollars last year," I detailed.
"My goodness, that is so much money " my driver stated.
I asked him where he was from to which he replied saying that he was from Ghana in West Africa.
"Yes, Africa a very rich continent but the people do not see the riches," he added sadly.
"A lot of countries are in a race to take Africa's natural resources. This is particularly so with Chinese companies digging away throughout the continent trying as quickly as possible to extract valuable minerals, metals and precious stones," I elaborated.
"Yes, true indeed and it is only the leaders and military who become rich," he added.
"Another twist to the African story is that you have countries that are starved of fertile arable land leasing hundreds of thousands of acres in Africa to grow produce and then ship it back to their own countries to feed their people," I explained to the driver.
"Really! are you serious?" he gasped.
"I kid you not my friend, even countries such as Bangladesh where my parents are from are leasing land in Zambia and South Sudan for food production. Take Mozambique for example they have leased out 7% of their agricultural to foreign companies, the highest of any African country".
"Wow! I never heard of this, and it is the African leaders who live in luxury while people suffer," my driver went on.
"Well! Leaders in the West become rich too but in very different ways,"
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Did you know Bill Clinton last year made a speech that he got paid $500,000 for, and on average he charges $150,000 to give a one hour speech?"
"What just by speaking?
"Yes, at events held by businesses and other organisations, and our previous prime minister Tony Blair can charge up to £190,000 for lectures and after-dinner speeches," I explained.
"My god that is crazy, so much money to speak," the driver shook his head as he brought the car to a halt outside the train station.
"You are the nicest passenger I've had, thank you for talking to me," he complimented as I paid him the fare.
"The pleasure was all mine and god bless you my friend," I said as I left the vehicle.
On another day my driver is of Sri Lankan origin. He tells me he has been in the UK for 15 years having escaped his home country as a persecuted Tamil Minority. On the ten minute journey he relays his story of how he saw family members gunned down by Sri Lankan government troops - who are Sinhalese, making up the majority of the island's population as well as running country.
I listened as his voice lowered and a sense of sadness at the loss of family members and friends clouded my drivers thoughts. I could sense a heavy heart and I was touched by this humble man who was now bringing up his family in the suburbs of London, working hard as a taxi driver.
I asked about his family in the UK, his reply gladdened me immensely. He told me about his two daughters studying hard, one was at university and the other was preparing for her GCSE finals this summer.
"Thank you my friend for sharing your story and I am sorry for your loss," I offered as I stepped out of his vehicle.
"No thank you for listening, I will always miss my home country," He replied as I left thinking about what this man must have gone through in his home country before fleeing.
My final driver was a little less verbose and did not even acknowledge my entrance into his vehicle. I sat down and asked him to take me to the station, to which he grunted a noise indicating understanding. So I sat back and my ears picked up the language of the radio station he was listening to. Clearly not English I listened a bit more intently, as a familiar vowel hit my ear drums. I recognised the language as being Farsi, but wasn't a 100% sure. So I asked the driver,
"Is that radio station in Iranian?"
"Yes, it's Persian," he replied.
"Oh! OK, I can recognise some of the vowels of the DJ," I continued.
"Hmmm!" he solemnly acknowledged my recognition of his language.
Not deterred I continued being my effusive self.
"Happy Nowruz," I wished him.
"Oh! thank you," he responded surprised that a total stranger would be aware of the Persian New Year.
"So is Nowruz today?" I questioned.
"No it is tomorrow," he responded.
Before I could continue any further we had arrived at the station. I paid my fare and bid him farewell by saying, "Salaam Alaikum".
"Salaam Alaikum," he replied as I closed the door behind.
All three drivers were very different and had three very different stories, the latter which I did not get to hear. Taxi drivers around the world are the archetypal story tellers who delight their patrons as they ferry them from destination to destination. It's funny, but I enjoyed my chat with the Ghanaian driver the most and today I am in Mozambique for a short working stint.
I never thought a conversation about a part of the world would mean I would end up being there three months later. However, being in one of the remotest parts of Mozambique is proving to be revelatory to say the least.