Author: Grace A. Musila

Jozi taxi diaries

“God’s case, no appeal” is the name of a long-past-retirement-age taxi in Chinua Achebe’s novel, No Longer at Ease. This pithy aphorism is right up there with “We mend broken hearts” and “Don’t steal, the government hates competition”, as freely dispensed taxi-wisdom goes in many African cities. A fan of most things offside, I feel morally obliged to like “God’s case, no appeal”, which is also a pretty appropriate description of Johannesburg taxi drivers, who are second only to the Gupta family as a law unto themselves.

There are many sins that can be laid upon Johannesburg taxi drivers’ heads. Humour is not one of them. Except for this one driver my friend Vuyo told me about: his taxi had the usual sticker asking passengers to refrain from paying with large notes, but somehow one morning there were lots of R50 and R100 notes on board, which left the passenger seated next to the driver – the fare collector – stuck for change. The taxi driver quietly noted the problem.

A short drive on, he casually turned into a garage, parked, and walked into the express shop with the batch of notes. He emerged with a plastic bag filled with random groceries, which he proceeded to distribute along with the respective change to the passengers, deducting the taxi fare and the cost of whatever random item he had bought them. Exclamations flew around as non-smokers received packs of cigarettes and school children got dish-washing liquid. Two of the luckier passengers received a piece of New Lifebuoy Total and a nondescript packet of condoms, which promised total hygiene and total pleasure respectively. “You must read that sticker,” he said, easing out of the garage.

(Pic: Oupa Nkosi, M&G
(Pic: Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

I suppose taxi commuting would be a lot less stressful if all taxi drivers had this dry sense of humour. Sadly, they don’t, as I once learnt across the road from Luthuli House in Jo’burg.

Its illustrious history as the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC) aside, Luthuli House’s other claim to fame is that former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema once defended its revolutionary honour with choice expletives – including that classic Malemaism ‘tjatjarag’ – which sent the revolutionary house trending on cyberspace while klevas churned rib-cracking spoofs and soundtracks to Malema’s gallantry on YouTube.

For me though, Luthuli House brings back less-than-revolutionary memories of a taxi ride gone wrong in 2005, which ended with an irate taxi driver screeching to a sudden halt on a street curb near Luthuli House, jumping out and pacing near the taxi as he quarrelled about thieving passengers. I was one of the said thieving passengers. On this day, I learnt the value of one rand. And that a rand is not just a rand.

It was after 11am and I was on a taxi from Soweto to Braamfontein for a noon meeting. As usual, the taxi stopped at edge of the CBD, where Noord Street taxi rank-bound taxis part ways with Bree Street taxi rank-bound taxis. At this point, unless all passengers are going to one taxi rank, taxis generally swap passengers in a loose ‘division of labour’ arrangement to avoid driving to both taxi ranks. So, the Noord Street taxi rank passengers moved to another taxi, while two of us (myself and a middle-aged lady) were joined by several other Bree Street taxi rank passengers from the other taxi. A short ride on, the middle-aged lady asked the taxi driver for her change.

“How much?”

“One rand.”

“Didn’t everyone get back their change?”

“No, I haven’t received my change.”

After repeatedly asking who had the missing rand to no avail, the driver suddenly braked, jumped out and banged the door shut, too angry to drive on. Seemingly, this had happened before and he was simply fed up with this emerging sticky-fingers tendency in his taxi. Some commuters protested about being unfairly delayed, especially as they had switched taxis after the monies had been collected.This left me and the aggrieved passenger as the chief ‘suspects’. Except I was certain I hadn’t handled any change. And the lady was certain she had not received her change. And she wanted her rand back.

As 12pm drew closer, I contemplated getting off the taxi and walking the short distance to Bree Street taxi rank and over Nelson Mandela Bridge to Braamfontein for my meeting. A second thought crossed my mind as the driver ranted about our theft: maybe I should just offer to replace the damned rand. But something stopped me from making either of these faux pas. It occurred to me that, despite their annoyance, none of my fellow passengers was offering to replace the missing rand or take the short walk to Bree. So, I impatiently watched the spectacle of our ‘thieving selves’ packed outside Luthuli House, until the taxi driver – apparently deciding he’d rather be rid of us – got back in the taxi, gave the lady her rand, and drove on, covering the short distance to Bree with an angry rant about cheap passengers who stole one rand. What kind of fourth-rate thieves were we anyway? Serious thieves busied themselves blowing up ATMs and hijacking cash-in-transit vehicles for proper monies, not pinching one rand coins from underpaid taxi drivers.

It later dawned on me that my fellow passengers obviously realised – and respected – the fact that there was more than a rand at stake. This was not about a rand. There was a principle at stake, and the potential corrosion of the implicit trust between a taxi driver and his passengers. This explains why, unlike the Kenyan conductor or the Ghanaian driver’s mate who collects fares, Johannesburg commuters pass on their fares all the way to the passenger seated next to the driver, who in turn processes the change and gives the driver the total collection for the entire taxi load of people. It wasn’t just a rand at stake. This system and its implicit trust were at stake. To date, I still don’t believe it was a case of theft; it was more likely an inadvertent mix-up of change. But in such a well-oiled system, there is no room for inadvertent mistakes. Not even one-rand mistakes.

Naturally, I missed my meeting that day. But I learnt the value of a rand.

Tata ma chance love in Jozi

Long before P Square and Akon had made that risqué endorsement of gold-digging, insisting that “she must chop my money!”, and even before Ridge Forrester had gone down on his knees for the umpteenth time to propose to Brooke in The Bold and the Beautiful, the Johannesburg Casanova had already reconfigured the flirting game. Thanks to this change of rules, most women in South Africa have had the displeasure of having The Question popped at least a few times, often from the most ‘unlikely’ quarters. It is not the most affirming experience and in fact, the other extreme of this trend manifests in horrendous ways. But that is a conversation for another day.

My friends and I have christened this trend tata ma chance love, in honour of a long-running lottery advert which encourages people to ‘take a chance’ because ‘one day is one day’. In a similar vein, these men try their luck ‘just because’. It is a democracy mos. Unlike mainstream lotto players though, these men have neither the expectation nor the desire to win. In fact, ‘winning’ this Casanova lotto would be rather like Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo) getting shot with real bullets by Blakkie Swart during the making of the movie Jerusalema. It would attract the same degree of scandalised shock as Taffy’s in Caribbean author Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Can’t Dance.

One day, Taffy, a man from a slum suggestively called Calvary Hill, declared himself to be Christ and, put himself up on a cross, and told his followers: “Crucify me! Let me die for my people. Stone me with stones as you stone Jesus, I will love you still.” And when they started to stone him, he got vexed and started to cuss: “Get me down! Get me down! Let every sinnerman bear his own blasted burden! Who is I to die for people who ain’t have sense enough to know they can’t pelt a man with big stones when so much little pebbles lying on the ground.” You see, like Taffy’s flirtation with the crucifixion, the Casanova lotto winnings lie in the make-believe rewards of a chuckle, a smile, a laugh, a playful friendliness from a familiar-stranger. The Freedom Charter neglected to put it in writing, but the people shall flirt.

I have had The Question popped countless times. Very unceremoniously. No bent knees. No rings. No ridiculously perfect bouquet of flowers. No candlelit dinner. No Enrique Iglessias crooning syrupy songs dripping with sticky sweet Spanish love like wild honey. Nothing cliché. No. All my roadside proposals have been simple, point-blank, no-frills affairs, in true tata ma chance tradition; whose vocabulary ranges from variations of “Ngiyakuthanda sweetness” (I love you) to the Twitter-compliant “Ushadile?” (Are you married?), which stays safely under 140 characters, to “Fanele si’shade s’thandwa sam” (We should get married, my love). Often without preamble, often from strangers who have known me for all of fourteen seconds. These amorous grooms are men of few words. They have stuff to do and proposals to make. So they have long dispensed with such bourgeoisie niceties like greetings and getting to know their bride-never-to-be.

'The Freedom Charter neglected to put it in writing, but the people shall flirt.' (Graphic: Kenny Leung/M&G)
‘The Freedom Charter neglected to put it in writing, but the people shall flirt.’ (Graphic: Kenny Leung/M&G)

My strangest tata ma chance proposal came from a parking attendant at the corner of Jorrisen and Henri Streets, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, across the road from the Senate House entrance into Wits University. It happened on a sunny October morning, as I walked from my flat a few metres away to campus, like I did every morning just after 8am. I often saw this parking attendant, whose name I never got to know; and we often exchanged polite greetings – a quiet nod, a wave of the hand, sometimes a “hi” or “hello” (me) “Sawubona sisi” (him on a formal note), “Hello ma’darl’in” (him on a playful note).

On this October morning, I nod at him from across the road as I walk past, and he says, “Hey, my sister! Linda kancinci!” I stop, and wait a bit as requested, slightly puzzled at what I imagine is an unprecedented request for some coins; a request which will most likely involve a complicated tale of an urgent trip to Krugersdorp, inadequate money for the taxi and a sick child. I have heard infinite versions of this tale before. For me, the bottom line is that the narrator needs the money. Whether the story is convincing or even true at all, is immaterial. I mentally check my purse to see if I have any money to share. I know there will be no trip to Krugersdorp, and in fact, my coins are likely to make a welcome contribution towards a nice cold Black Label dumpie at that shebeen down the road. By now he has walked across the road to my side. He stops in front of me, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “Asishade sisi.” A confused “Mmmh?” is all I manage. He repeats: “Ngithe asishade.” (I said let’s get married.) Straight-faced. Not a smile in sight.

Now, there must be many possible responses to a slightly unexpected marriage proposal from a parking attendant (whose name you don’t know) at 8:06am on a sunny Wednesday morning in October; when your mind is busy trying to figure how to fix that chapter in your dissertation which, your supervisor declared, has no argument. When you are in the middle of pondering whether you are so clever or so domkop that you can write 46 pages of argument-free waffle, it is hard to give the correct answer to a parking-lot proposal, with only the Johannesburg morning traffic for a soundtrack. There is something to be said for the inspiring power of Enrique Iglesias promising to “be your hero baby” or Linda Ronstadt declaring “I don’t know much, but I know I love you…” after all, syrupy or not.

But as they say, when in doubt, keep it simple. So, I return his unsmiling gaze and say, as straight-facedly, “Yes. Let’s get married. Today.” His turn to be briefly scandalised, a la Taffy. I’ve just shot Lucky Kunene with real bullets. “Yes” is clearly not the answer he had in mind. I was supposed to play the usual script of “No, I have a boyfriend” to which he would reply “It is fine, I don’t mind” in true Casanova-lotto player spirit.

“Yes; today” was clearly a possibility he hadn’t considered. But he quickly bounces back from my humorous subversion of the official script and bursts out laughing. Hard. So hard, he bends over and slaps his thighs, too amused. Then he straightens up and waves me off. “Hayi, suka! Khaugqibe isikolo kuqala, then ngizokushada,” he says as he walks off, shaking his head, amused at this ridiculous student. (Get off! Go and finish school first then I will marry you.)

Where do you find a comeback to that? As I walk into campus, one useful Nollywood phrase comes to mind: “It is so bad, it is worse.”

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.

Gossiping with Nkrumah in Accra

Accra, June 2012   I am walking with my new friend and namesake, Auntie G, down High Street, Accra, towards the arts and crafts market when I hear “Jambo! Hakuna Matata!” interspersed with “Bafana Bafana!”. I immediately know I am the one being addressed, in that instinctive way foreigners in new places know when they are spoken to, even when they can’t see the speaker. Busted! So much for my illusion of blending in. Crafts vendors – the ever observant eyes of every African city – can read me as either Kenyan or South African, even before I betray my foreignness with my heavy accent.

Now, I have nothing against Bafana Bafana. To misquote South African writer Ndumiso Ngcobo, some of my best friends are South African. But even they don’t want to be associated with the perennially losing Bafana. Certainly not on the streets of Accra, when the Black Stars have just massacred the Lesotho Crocodiles 7 – 0 in a World Cup 2014 qualifier. But with the Black Stars’ subsequent lackluster flickering at the 2013 Afcon tournament – only second to the Chipolopolo’s  misfiring – I might be persuaded to reconsider my views on Bafana. Okay, truth be told, with Kenya’s consistent record of perpetual insignificance on the African soccerscape, I have little business holding an opinion on Bafana. Like most of my compatriots, I have long reconciled myself to the fact that we are more of an athletic nation, with occasional flashes of brilliance in cricket and rugby, when our ancestors have enjoyed a few good puffs of the fabled Malawi gold.

But today, on the streets of Accra, I could live with being associated with Bafana Bafana. It is the touristic “Hakuna Matata” that gives me malaria, with its evocation of The Lion King and Baroness Karen I-Had-a-Farm-in-Africa-Blixen. I suppose it inadvertently reclaims tourism as still mzungu (white) terrain in Africa. It marks me as a pretender to touristic pleasure; sadly, some ideas are just frozen in place like that. The curio vendors at the crafts market in Kampala, Uganda seem to be dynamic – at least in so far as they responded to wazungu tourists’ protestations against being called mzungu by printing souvenir T-shirts with the legend  “I am not Mzungu” (talk about lost in transcription!). Still, it will be a while before we send young  Simba and his matata back to Disneyland. Then again, as my friends subsequently pointed out, maybe the ever gracious Ghanaians meant “Hakuna Matata” with Bafana Bafana, and we must all just chillax about the losing spell.  I quite liked this reading.

But while we are on this ultra-optimistic mode, can the artists please drag their African men and women out of the frozen fantasy of bare breasts, earthen pots, and skinny necks weighed down by tons of beads, and get them across to this side of the millennium? Dare I hope that they will start painting the actual men and women who walk the streets and footpaths of African cities and villages?

Along with my friend Wambui, who shares my exasperation at the ubiquitous Afri-xotica of huge ceramic pots balanced at impossible angles on chiskop’d heads, I look forward to the day I will walk into a curio market in an African city and find colourful canvas upon colourful canvas of young people in luminous green skinny jeans, stylish tops and trendy handbags, swinging to “I go tell my papa, I go tell am say, you be waka waka baby” with Flavour N’abania; or a book club of fabulous middle-aged women in Kinshasa joining Twitter wars about the next random artist who thinks  female genital mutilation is funny enough to parody in a black-face cake installation. While my pedestrian grasp of high art probably renders the subtle insights baked into the grotesque Swedish cake illegible to my artistic palate, I am sure the not-mzungu tourists can be persuaded to let go of their fantasy Afri-xotica, and embrace the reality of Africans’ glocal citizenship in multiple cultural landscapes.

But if everyday reality is too boring for the not-mzungus, then we can let them eat black-face-sponge-cake art. New markets might just keep the crafts-makers in business. I, for one, will be ready to buy that canvas featuring a septuagenarian shaking a leg to Cabo Snoop’s Windeck in downtown Yaounde, while his Salva-Kiir-style black-cowboy felt hat sits on the table next to his bottle of Zambezi Lager and his copy of Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas Oblige (Allah is not Obliged). Yes, Africans are busy pondering the child soldier phenomenon, from Sierra Leone to Uganda, from the DRC to Sudan; and yes, we do have a penchant for beads and trademark printed ‘African’ wax kitenge fabrics (bless the Dutch for this African authenticity). In fact, I am wearing both my multicoloured beaded necklace and my beaded breast cancer awareness month pink ribbon as I write this. But we are larger than our wars and our poverty: we dance, we dream, we read, we think, we sommer enjoy a good cold lager after a long day’s work; and yes, we pay taxes too, incidentally.

Auntie G and I walk to the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park a few metres away from the crafts market.  Both the park and the monument are simple, elegant, Africanist tributes to the grand-père of Pan-Africanism. He is finally resting in peace, enjoying his third, and hopefully last, rest, as Auntie G quips. His first resting place was in Guinea, where he died in exile, and then he was moved to his home village of Nkroful, before being buried here, under a huge grey-marble Baobab-like tree. The Memorial Park guide, Salim, tells me it is called a Gossip Tree. I suspect he is pulling my leg, but I like the name. The tree’s head is cut off. According to Salim, the Gossip Tree was traditionally a resting spot for men to catch their breath after a long day’s work in the fields before returning to the homestead. The feminist in me chuckles at this rock-solid acknowledgement of men as partners-in-gossip. I briefly visualise Nkrumah gossiping with his wife Fathia Rizk Nkrumah, who lies across from him; occasionally joined by Selassie, Nyerere and W.E.B Du Bois, as they debate the African Union’s decision to move the July 2012 summit to Addis, because Joyce Banda refuses to honour the Old Boys’ solidarity which continues to postpone Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s trip to The Hague.

The cut-off head of the tree, Salim tells us, is a metaphor for the untimely death of a great man, whose wisdom could have made many more contributions to society. It is a fitting tribute to Nkrumah’s unfinished Pan-African project of unity, liberation and prosperity. Diagonally across from the tree, Nkrumah stands tall and equally headless, his torso gazing blindly across the manicured gardens to the Supreme Court buildings. Beside his right leg sits his head on a separate, much shorter slab. I can’t help noting how the headless statue mirrors the headless tree; and the unfinished business signalled by the cut tree. I am fascinated by the headless statue and its head. Salim explains that Nkrumah’s statue was beheaded during the 1967 coup – Operation Cold Chop – which ousted Nkrumah while he was out of the country, and for some time afterwards the head could not be traced.

The headless statue of Kwame Nkrumah, with the head mounted next to it. (Flickr/Rowan Collins)

Apparently, an elderly lady eventually brought back the head and handed it over to the ruling party. She insisted on anonymity. I have so many questions about this lady. What impulse drove her to do such a risky thing, like picking up the heavy bronze head of a deposed president, beheaded during the coup, while his real head was safely in Vietnam? What relationship had she had with the head and its owner, as Nkrumah went through the now predictable cycle of resentment and nostalgia that marks Africans’ relationship with their first generation nationalist liberation icons?  Why did she choose to return it? Why the anonymity? The ellipsis of the lady’s story mirrors the elliptical treatment of the coup by the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park’s museum, with its brief and highly allusive references to the coup. This ellipsis nonetheless looms large in the sparseness of the museum’s collection; predominantly featuring Nkrumah’s items from Lincoln University, where he did his undergraduate studies, and an impressive range of books he authored.

As Salim explains, a lot of Nkrumah’s personal effects were vandalised and destroyed during the coup. The museum’s tentative archive of the coup sits equally awkwardly beside the decision not to re-head Nkrumah’s statue, when his head was returned, but rather mount it beside him, as a historical document. In the space between the headless statue and the head sitting beside a right foot with a huge chunk missing from its thigh, lies a fascinating story of the complexities of the icons of our lifetimes, who simultaneously embrace and undermine our best efforts to sanitise their human blemishes in our perpetual pursuit of one-dimensional god-like icons.

Grace A. Musila is a non-athletic Kenyan. She writes in her personal capacity.