Uber drivers are the people who have a finger on the pulse of society. They tell the sorts of stories you might never read in a newspaper.
He looked like any Nairobi hustler – and I use this term in the sense that Ruto means it. You know how we judge people based on first impressions? We didn’t really talk much at first. Then we started to, and you know how conversation leaps from topic to topic. We started talking about M-Pesa and I think I mentioned that M-Pesa was in Afghanistan but I wasn’t sure about it. And that’s when it came out that he used to be a soldier in Afghanistan and had only come back home after America pulled out its troops last year. Suddenly I saw him differently. I looked at him and yes I could now see the soldier, I could see the discipline and toughness in his demeanour and bearing.
It was not the first time an Uber driver was surprising me by supplying information about himself that overturned my earlier opinion of him – I say him because I have never encountered a female Uber driver, though I know they are out there.
I have learned to stop judging a book by its cover, though, of course, that is human nature. It is humbling to see your first impression dashed by the facts. But also thrilling. Actually, it is more thrilling than it is humbling. It gives me a rush to talk to strangers for some reason. And I mean real talking, not small talk. I mean having a real conversation. And where else is better for such conversations than on a thirty-minute Uber ride?
I don’t think I have ever met an Uber driver who is not a good conversationalist. I suppose they have to be. Maybe it is a way to ensure you give them a good rating. That’s a cynical take. I prefer to think that for them it’s a way to kill the boredom of driving around from morning to evening. There is a lot of monotonous waiting in the taxi trade. You sit in the car, parked somewhere just waiting for favour to fall upon you and a customer in your vicinity to request a ride. Then you drive on roads you have probably driven on countless times before. At some point, even music may lose its novelty. Maybe that’s why they become good conversationalists; because they are bored and talking to strangers is a good way to break the monotony.
You know they are eager to chat because very little will set them off into monologues. Conversations with Uber drivers in my experience tend to start with road-related incidents. For instance, if we encounter traffic cops, NTSA officers, misbehaviour from fellow drivers, accident scenes and so forth. In many cases, perhaps because it is an election year, the conversations ultimately end up becoming political. But social issues are also a big hit.
Driving through a certain neighbourhood, an Uber driver said to me, “This is where the rich bring their useless adult kids.”
“What do you mean useless?”
“Because they are useless. Big children who have become too much for their parents to handle. They do drugs night and day. All they want to do is party. It becomes too much for the parents, so they dump them here. This estate is full of them.”
These are the sorts of interesting factoids you might never read in a newspaper. I think of the Uber driver as a person who more than anyone else has his finger on the pulse of society. If there is anybody who knows or understands a city, it is the taxi drivers of that city. They interact with the rich, the middle class, and the poor. They drive through all sorts of neighbourhoods. And unlike matatu drivers, they do not have predetermined destinations. And the way the Uber business is set up, no driver can eliminate human connection from their business and do well. After talking to countless strangers and taking them to and from destinations, day in day out, a person must arrive at some unique understanding of the people who live in his city.
We were driving through a rich neighbourhood and he said, “There is a woman who lives here that offered me money to service her because her husband is useless in bed.”
“What did you say?”
“She was drunk. What if the next morning when she was sober she decided to say I raped her?”
Another time, I was told: “One time a rich woman asked me to driver her two adult children around and take them wherever they wanted for the day.”
“You knew each other?”
“No, she ordered a ride just like anyone. And when I got there she laid out the proposition.”
“Did she pay well?”
“Yes, I made good money.”
“Where did you take them?”
“We went to the Nairobi orphanage to see the animals. But in the afternoon they wanted to go drinking.”
“You drank with them?”
“Oh yes. It was a good time. And the two kids were doing drugs. They had syringes with them.”
“Jeezus. How old were they?”
“In their twenties. Their rich mother wanted to get them out of her hair for the day.”
The tales Uber drivers tell paint a gloomy picture of society. As you drive through affluent neighbourhoods, the temptation is to admire the rich and wonder when you will ever live in such a place. It looks like heaven on earth. But the Uber driver knows unsavoury tales about the lives of the rich. He has interacted with the rich. He has driven them when they are drunk. He has driven husbands to see their clandestine lovers. He has driven college girls back to their bedsitters at dawn from the lodgings their “sponsors” took them to. The Uber driver has seen everything. He is not a romantic. He is jaded. He has seen too much truth.
The Uber driver has stories to tell. And he tells them well. He speaks with a certain knowingness. As if to say, “You can trust me, I know these things.” There are things I know better than him, but he always has more anecdotes than me. If wisdom was measured in the wealth of anecdotes a man has, then the Uber driver is one of the wisest men around. A raconteur par excellence.
Somebody might say to me, “But the Uber drivers I have interacted with weren’t that interesting.” Well, interesting is relative. And an interested listener creates an interesting speaker. In my experience, most people have something interesting to say if you care to listen. Most people have something to say, but we mostly stick to small talk. If you can get past the small talk, then people start to say interesting things because they are drawing from their life experiences and emotions, which means anything they say has authenticity.
It's not hard to get people to that point. All you have to do is ask simple things like “why?” Be curious. Most people are not curious. They are content with what they are told. My toxic trait is curiosity. I was that child who annoyed teachers by asking “why?” This trait served me badly in 8-4-4 but in life, it has done me good. It has made me extremely good at talking to strangers. For instance, if you tell me “The government just demolished some shops”, my first instinct is to ask, “Why?” You might say, “To build a road.” And I will ask, “What happened to the people whose shops were demolished? Did they get compensated?” I will keep fishing for details until an interesting picture starts to form.
That is because I am a storyteller. I love stories. I love to hear stories. I love to read them. I love to watch them. And I write them myself. I wasn’t always a writer, but I was always a lover of stories. I developed a high reading level at a young age because of my love for storybooks. So when someone tells me something, I look for the story in that. The government demolishing shops is not a story. But inside there somewhere, there is a story. And Uber drivers usually know the story. For instance, the driver might say, “The road being built here is going to the farm of a big man in government.” Now, that’s a story. A story needs characters and motivations. The government is an amorphous entity. A big man in government is a character. If I was not curious, if I did not ask specific questions designed to trigger the talker into supplying me with more and better details, I would not get the interesting story.
For a person like me who loves stories, Uber drivers are a rich resource. There are countless times I have thought to myself as an Uber driver talks: “This would make a great Kenyan short story.”
Next time you are talking to a stranger, do what I do. Be curious. Be open to learning from them. Good listeners are considered great conversationalists, simply because they give people the freedom to express themselves. When talking to a good listener, you become a poet, a storyteller, a griot, a philosopher. So perhaps all I have written about Uber drivers isn’t necessarily about them as storytellers, but myself as a listener. I am not always a good listener, but when talking to strangers, I am.