An Uber Lesson on Africa

[I]t seemed we had struck cross-cultural gold. Impressed by her quickness to that conclusion about Patrice Lumumba, I got comfier in the passenger seat and sighed...

Olenoko contributor Cosmopolitan Griot (aka "Cosmo Griot") shares the story of an Uber-ride-cum-Africa-lesson and rates the driver with nuanced analysis and a dash of humor.

Today I met one. The nicest, sweetest, gentlest Idahoan woman who spoke to me about God and her church, and then, when I told her about how bad the traffic was getting in Accra (though it was still worse in Lagos), politely asked me if we had vehicles there.

"So, do you have... I'm sure you have, but... Do you have vehicles?"

It was not until she had dropped me off and I had walked down the winding path and seen my reflection in the tinted doors of the library that it dawned on me. She had imagined the traffic I mentioned to be traffic of humans, cattle, and who knows what other kind of animal.

But when I tell you she was nice and sweet and gentle, please believe every word. It is just as they say, as others have told me. She meant no harm. She was tanned, with the hard-earned wrinkles round the eyes and mouth of a woman who had borne many of life's challenges with a smile. Light brown spots -- liver spots, are they called? -- carpeted her skin. Her off-white teeth were set within each jaw in a tight embrace, but never the twain did meet. And she was sweet. Her hands rested on the tan leather wheel of her white Mercedes, my spiffy Uber ride.

"Are you OK? Is the temperature fine? If you need anything at all just let me know."

I warmed to her. "I'm fine, thank you." I beamed, donning my sunglasses.

"Where are you from?"

"Ghana." I quickly added, "And I've lived in other places, hence my confused accent."

This standard response usually preempted the invariable question about my accent and the assumption that invariably accompanied it: "But you sound so British!" (For the record, my accent is not really British, but more on that in this other article.)

"My husband is from Jamaica," I continued.

To be fair, it was I who first said I wished her daughters "every success in their schooling and careers – blessings."

And so, perceiving an open door, she asked, "Do you go to church here?"

I said, "Well, we sometimes go to Unity, down the street. I like some of their teachings, but...I don't know. It's hard to describe…"

"God will guide you," she said, nodding. "As long as they teach according to the Bible. Every dot on every 'i' and every cross on every 't' matters. It's there by design."

She turned left onto the ramp for the highway. "What about where you're from? Did you go to church there?"

"Well, my dad was raised Presbyterian and my mother is Methodist, and I used to go to church with her. But since I've been here in the US, I've attended mostly nondenominational churches. Trying to find a balance between traditional and...well…"


"Yes, traditional and contemporary."

"Well, we go to Calvary Church. You're welcome to come. We say, 'Where God guides, He provides.'"

"Hmm, I like that. Where God guides, He provides."

She nodded emphatically. "He always does. For sure."

She ended nearly every statement she made with a low and steady "For sure," which was perhaps the problem. Being so sure about everything is not a stance that admits much contradiction -- or new (and perhaps more accurate) learning. That particular maxim, though, I happen to believe. For sure.

"I'm from Idaho."

"Oh, I see."

"Have you ever been?"

"No, but I'm sure it's a fine picture of nature in all its glory."

"Yes, we have different terrains, plains…"

"It's vast?"

"Ohh, yes. For sure. Now, Jamaica is a beautiful country, but then it's an island. Very different from here. But your country is very small too."

"Weeellll, not that small. Not as big as some of the other countries in West Africa, and certainly not as big as the United States, but a lot bigger than Jamaica. We have a population of nearly 30 million.”

"Wow! I didn't know that."

"Now, Nigeria -- Nigeria is truly vast and populous."

"Oh, I don't think I could live in Nigeria. You know we do a lot of mission work, and Nigeria...they're having a lot of trouble over there. I mean, there's trouble everywhere, but they seem to…"

"Have more than their fair share?"

"Yes, with ISIS and everything."

"Well, yes, this terrorism that has been unleashed on the world is terrible indeed. Nigeria has it mostly in the north, in the northeast, particularly in Borno State."

I pictured her in her church pew, with all the other people who looked like her, watching a projected slideshow of pictures from the field, showing the most depressing images of dire -- and only the most dire -- situations in Nigeria, that all might see what heroes the missionaries were. After all, people may not feel as inclined to give if they saw how parts of New York paled in comparison to parts of Lagos, both in grandeur and in beauty.

"I'm sure Ghana is beautiful."

"Yes, it is. It's very rich in natural resources. And we also have different types of terrain -- we have savannah, but we also have forests, and then we have mountainous and coastal areas too. It's also very rich culturally and historically, like much of Africa, despite the challenges we face."

"Yeaahhh. For sure."

"Of course, many of those challenges are due -- quite frankly -- to bad leaders in some cases. But some are also due to meddlesome countries who have wanted to get their hands on our resources by any means necessary."

Here I paused, debating whether we had time for a lesson in colonialism and neocolonialism, and decided we didn't.

"So, do you have cities and villages? I'm sure you have cities, but do you have a lot of villages and small cities?"

"Well, no -- I mean, yes. We have cities, big, medium, and small. And we have lots of villages too, again, of different sizes. We have the whole spectrum. Of course, the capital, Accra, is the largest city and rather overcrowded. The traffic there is getting nearly as bad as in Lagos."

Enter the vehicle snafu. (Please see the first paragraph above, as I do not care to relive it.)

"And do most people live in apartments?"

"A lot of people live in houses, built to order. We have exceptionally qualified and talented architects, engineers, builders, and other professionals in the construction and real estate industries."


"And our houses are very solidly built." I hoped she would be able to strike a contrast. Unsure of this and still finding the chasm too wide, I continued, perhaps veering a little to the extreme. "I mean, Nigeria, for example, has many houses the likes of which cannot be found here in the United States. At least not easily. Because they have immense wealth. Now, they also have a lot of poverty that needs addressing. It's important to see the broader picture, though complex."

"So have you been to many African countries?"

"Unfortunately, I've seen much more of the rest of the world than I have of my own continent."

She chuckled. I did too, but wryly, wistfully. "I've visited Togo, which neighbors Ghana, but that's about it. First, I'd like to visit Senegal, Ivory Coast (La Côte d'Ivoire)…and Kenya, and some of the other Eastern African countries…and some of the southern ones too. I'd also like to visit Central Africa, particularly the DRC."

"What's that?"

"The Democratic Republic of Congo."


"Now, that's another example of a country extremely rich in resources and culture, which caught the eye of meddlesome countries who caused it to fall to ruin, by those countries' own admission (or by that of their citizens). Of course, some of the leaders the DRC has had since have contributed to its destruction."


"They did have a great leader once, who could have united the country and who would have protected it, but…"

"That's why he's not there anymore."


I heard angels sing -- it seemed we had struck cross-cultural sensitivity gold. Impressed by her quickness to that conclusion about Patrice Lumumba, I got comfier in the passenger seat and sighed happily. And then came this.

"Did you go to college here?" she ventured, seemingly impressed by my conversation, too.

Spotting the sneaky attempt to claim a gold medal for the United States so long after the Olympics, and also because we were nearing the community library, I didn't answer. I wanted to say, "Yes, but, but, but." But I didn't. I didn't tell her that it was in Ghana I first learned to speak English, and that I had subsequently had an Australian education at an international school in Papua New Guinea, before I returned to Ghana for the IGCSE and International Baccalaureate programs, during which I developed and grew into this ease of expression, which made me attractive to the US college that came to recruit, and which college then honed what Ghana -- and my other homes -- had given.

Now, perhaps you are with me on this, or perhaps you think me naive or even a fool. "She's racist!" you may declare. And perhaps you'll be right. But, in this case, you're probably not.

There is a difference between racism and ignorance. This was clearly ignorance. Arrogant ignorance? Willful ignorance? Learned ignorance? Certainly one of the three or some combination thereof, but ignorance. For sure.

We could, of course, plunge into a debate about whether willful or arrogant ignorance -- the refusal to be curious enough about the "other" to openly ask questions and honestly seek answers to those questions -- is tantamount to racism or sexism or whatever. And we will be here, as my Australian fifth grade teacher used to say, “until the deserts freeze over and the camels come skiing home.” Because such questions go to intent and you don't have to be a lawyer to fathom how hard it is to prove what someone thinks in the deepest recesses of her mind, or what someone feels in the darkest depths of his heart. So let's leave that alone for now.

What you can do is to question and criticize a society that does not inspire and encourage that curiosity. And those societies are to be found not only here in the United States, but also in Europe. Heck, don't stop globe-trotting now -- they are even to be found in Africa and Asia and beyond. Do some countries do better than others? Yes. But, in general, we, as a race -- as the human race -- need to do better when it comes to learning about our fellow human beings. Estas de acuerdo?

In any case, I believe her questions were, for the most part, openly asked, and my answers honestly sought. And surely, we can give her (and me!) points for having engaged in this discussion at all. That in itself is a step -- an Uber step -- in the right direction.

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