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The Tale of the Tanzanian Taxi Driver

I went to Tanzania a few months ago with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and boyfriend Rob. We were on a tour to learn all about the issues around coffee-growing, particularly fair trade coffee-growing. It was often incredibly interesting, though probably the most interesting thing we turned up was this awesome Obama calendar:

Spotted in a coffee processing factory.

The way the tour was structured, we didn't get to talk to the farmers much. Perhaps this is why the most affecting labor-related encounter we had was with a taxi driver.

Rob and I had split off from the rest of the coffee group two days early, because I insisted that it would be awesome to go to Zanzibar (and I was totally right; it was). On our way to and from Zanzibar, we passed through Dar Es Salaam for two nights and acquainted ourselves with a taxi driver named Frank. Because we had to catch a plane out of Dar Es Salaam in the early morning of our last day, we arranged for Frank to meet us around 5.30 AM at the hostel where we planned to stay.

On our last night in Dar Es Salaam, we went to the hostel and discovered that the running water wasn't working, and the place wasn't willing to provide buckets of water. This was no good -- not only were we thirsty, we were also covered in salt from jumping off a Zanzibari pier into the Indian Ocean. So we switched to the nearby YMCA, which had water and was cheaper anyway.

The next morning we had a brief adventure around 5 AM, when we realized that the YMCA didn't actually open until 6 AM and all the doors were locked. This meant that we had to break out of the place by climbing down a wall. Rob blazed the trail for me as usual, despite the fact that he was wearing loafers as usual. Breathless and laughing, we crept out into the dark streets of Dar Es Salaam and walked several blocks to meet Frank the taxi driver at our former hostel. On our way, a few taxi drivers offered to pick us up, but I figured that the only honorable thing to do was keep our appointment with Frank.

We were a little late, but Frank was there; so I apologized for our lateness, we packed our things into the taxi and drove off towards the airport. Rob and I sat chatting in the backseat about the local Tanzanian public transport -- here's what the public transport in Zanzibar looked like:

Zanzibari public transport is sort of like Swaziland's khumbi system, except that they're called dalla-dallas and they look ridiculously cool.

A few minutes into our conversation, Frank interrupted us. He seemed to be struggling with a strong emotion.

"Lydia," he said, "I have to say something."

"Okay," I said.

His voice was halting and seemed somewhat uncertain. "My English isn't good enough for this," he apologized, which was totally untrue. "But I am just very impressed and thankful that you came this morning. I am just a taxi driver, and tourists, they never think about me .... You had to leave the hostel last night because there was no water, and that was the right thing to do, because you should have water, but then when I heard that you had switched hostels without saying where you were going, I knew you would not be coming to meet me. But now I see that you came all the way back to the place you agreed to meet me, in the dark ... you worried about me and you came back to meet me. Even though I'm just a taxi driver!"

I wasn't sure what to say. I looked at Rob and Rob looked at me. Finally I said: "I mean, it seemed like the right thing to do. I didn't want to inconvenience you."

"Thank you," Frank said. The sincerity in his voice almost broke my heart. In the cities where I've lived in America, one never makes appointments with taxi drivers -- one simply calls a dispatcher or picks up a cab on the street when necessary -- but I found myself wondering whether drivers could be so affected by someone who was merely friendly and honorable. I mean, it's hard to imagine a New York taxi driver having such an emotional moment over a tourist who failed to be a thoughtless jerk, but maybe I just haven't paid enough attention to New York taxi drivers? Or maybe it really is that in Tanzania, the underclass tends to be treated much worse on an interpersonal level than they are in America, especially by tourists? Or maybe this is all just my white / cissexual / whatever privilege talking and it depends entirely on how customers perceive you? Or are there are lots of customer service jobs in America too where employees react to basic courtesy by feeling incredibly grateful? (Telemarketing?)

I mean, I spent years working in bookstores, and -- like all customer service jobs -- although I had some bad customers, I also had some really great customers. I think my strong reaction to Frank came from imagining what it would feel like to work customer service in a place where I'd be so heartbreakingly grateful to someone who wasn't thoughtless.

It's a cliché that the biggest impact Peace Corps Volunteers have is interpersonal, but it's also true. If most tourists are out there doing things like making unkept appointments with taxi drivers, or otherwise confirming awful colonial-ish stereotypes, then I guess we can make a major difference by failing to treat people like dirt. It's kind of sad to think that this is so necessary, but hey, at least we do it well.

If you're heading to Dar Es Salaam and want Frank's phone number, drop me an email! He gave it to me at the airport on our way out, and I promised to send him some business if I got the chance. And tell him I said hi, when you get there.


Amazing art done in car dust

Amazing super-tiny carvings in pencil lead

Exhibit on how colonialists looked through African eyes

The National Enquirer was nominated for a Pulitzer!
It didn't win, but still!

Zanzibarian Princess Salme was totally awesome
Growing up in the Zanzibar sultan's harem in the mid-1800s, she was not allowed to read or write, so she secretly taught herself to write using a camel's shoulder blade as a slate. Later she eloped with a German diplomat (who, alas, died only a year or two into her marriage) and spent the rest of her life in Europe, where she wrote the wildly popular Memoirs of an Arabian Princess. There's a whole room about her at the historical museum in Zanzibar! although it was kind of patchy and lacked a timeline, and therefore whetted my appetite for more information rather than answering questions.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2010 04:54 am (UTC)
I wonder if it partly has to do with the size of the country in question. In Guyana, there was definitely a greater expectation of developing personal relationships with people like taxi drivers than there is in the US. I've never had a US taxi driver give me his card, but after a few days in Georgetown I now know a couple of drivers whom I can trust and count on for my next trip.

So you have this tiny country with cultural expectations about interpersonal relationships, and then you have tourists from big impersonal cities who come in and trod all over those expectations. These people aren't necessarily rude so much as oblivious to the way things are done locally. Blowing off a taxi is no big deal in New York, after all. Probably most of the (white) people Frank's used to driving for don't have the cultural sensitivity to realize they're not in New York anymore.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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