I landed in the back of Ali's* Uber, a white VW Passat, with a heavy thud. It was 11pm in London on a cold rainy night in April 2015. I had just come from a warm week in Turkey with my then boyfriend, having taken advantage of being on assignment in Europe. It was an awful trip. The heavy thud I landed with was also driven by the fact that I was walking back into an assignment that was going horribly for me. I was going back into the dragon's den. I was miserable. London was miserable and Ali was the recipient of my miserable existence that evening. As I slipped into the back seat ready to pop my headphones in and disappear, I noticed a large sign posted on the passenger side air-conditioning vent. It read: A £90 pound fine will be charged for cleaning should this vehicle be messed in. "Fantastic!" I thought sarcastically, "I better hold my nausea together then."
Ali, sensing my mood, gave me a short but polite greeting and stared straight ahead beginning the navigation to my central London hotel. I imagined that, being an Uber driver, bad mannered passengers was normal for him. It certainly would explain the sign. He must be so used to this, and worse, by now. For some reason, I decided to be a better human than I had been up until that point.
"I'm sorry." I said. "I've had a bad month. Hello, I'm Koketso." Ali smiled at me warmly and introduced himself. "Where are you from?" he asked. I instantly felt embarrassed. From his accent and his features, I could tell Ali was East African and there had been a recent spate of xenophobic violence in South Africa. "Ah, my sister!" he proclaimed. "I used to live in Johannesburg, do you know Johannesburg?" "Do I know it, I live there!" I said excitedly. Ali, in his excitement, let me know that he was not angry. He began to tell me of his journey and how he ended up driving an Uber in the city of London.
Ali's two older sisters travelled before him from Somalia to Kenya. He joined them, along with his parents, a few years later. A journey that took them months with all the earthly belongings they could gather and travel with. They lived and worked in Kenya for quite some time and in fact, his parents still live there today. He, however, always had Johannesburg in his sights. One morning, he decided that he could not wait any longer and wanted more. He set out for South Africa.
"I was there for the xenophobic violence in 2009. It was not good - I had to hide. But after that, I decided that I needed to move." Ali had owned a shop in the East Rand. I sensed that he did not want to give too much detail on how he hid or where he went. His face went grim and he clenched his jaw. I did not press him for more. From the back seat of the car it seemed that his memories of the time were deeply disappointing. I could feel that he was hurt. Not angry, but hurt. Hurt that he had finally found this big city, the city of his childhood dreams and it didn't want him back. Hurt that he loved the continent so much but felt that there was no longer anything left for him there after 2015.
He could not live in Nairobi, it was not the right fit for him. He could not live in Johannesburg anymore, it was far too dangerous. He decided that Africa was no place for him anymore.
"It's very difficult to get to the UK I tell you. I had to pay something like R10,000 for a full service." He said, being deliberately vague on the figure and the process. "A full service?" I asked, cheekily hoping he would tell me more. "Yes." There you get advice and a plane ticket. How to get to the UK, how to apply for refugee status and the whole thing. It doesn't always work you see." He says to me. "You are very lucky if you make it through and I was one of the lucky ones." "And, are you happy now?" I asked. He beamed the brightest he had that entire evening. "Yes! Here, I can make a life. Here, I met my wife and I have children. I am able to get a British passport. I can make a life for my children and it will be a good life."
I thought about myself and how risk averse I am and asked him one final question as he steered me down the road of my hotel. "Weren't you scared you would lose all the money you had worked hard for on plan that has no guarantees at all? What would you have done if you didn't make it?" "You just have try. You have no choice. You just have to try." Ali dropped me off outside my hotel and had a final thought for me: "Ma'am, don't worry. I go back often and see my parents in Kenya. I'm going back in just a few months. Back to Africa." He said to me beaming.
* Name has been changed