I had been living in Dar-es-Salaam for a year when I started meeting her in a daladala. We did not talk at first. There was a problem. She was a woman and I was a man. In daladals that does not just happen: random conversation. Unless the daladala nearly has an accident ,which is rare.
A daladala running out of fuel in a jam still gets on people’s nerves and gets them talking, quarreling actually. A presidential convoy forcing us to swerve to the side of our narrow road really gets people going.
We did not bond over any of those things. For a long time, we did not even talk. But I watched her because she was interesting. Although she was darker than black Bata shoe polish, the conductors called her Mzungu. She insisted on English when speaking to them. Even when about to disembark, she would not try to say "Kondaa Nishushe". She said, “Conductor, I’m getting out.”
She insisted on not being cheated by a single shilling in the fare though she did not look poor. She was the first person I ever saw with an Apple iPod back when, with many Tanzanians, I did not know who Steve Jobs was. An iPod, then, was more expensive than some small coloured TVs.
But that was not what I found most interesting about her. I watched her, every time, to see if she would, just once, sleep through her stop. She was an uninhibited sleeper in the taxi. But right at her daladala stop, her head would snap back, her eyes pop open, and she would near yell, “Conductor, I’m getting out.”
Everything was elegant about her, except the way she slept and woke up in a panic. I did not understand why she slept in a taxi until she told me her reasons. I thought it would be that she was a single mother of three, looking after her unemployed parents and paying tuition for her siblings. I thought maybe it was because she had to wake up so early to go to work and just getting a chance to rest in this evening taxi, on the long journey home.
I thought of every reason why she slept in a taxi, but for the one she told me when we finally talked. She said, “So fewer men can have a chance to ask me for my number.” Since then, I have never sat next to her when I didn’t have to.