My conversation with Kide, the Uber driver from Congo, slowly unwrapped itself. I was in Ottawa for two nights and stayed in Gatineau, a city on the northern bank of the Ottawa River. The flight was smooth; we were enveloped in dreamy clouds and on solid ground soon again. Evening turned into night and my eyes grew heavy.
The grey sedan arrived in enough time for me to scan the reviews for the driver. I saw him when he stopped at the light and crossed to the other side to board. I was in no particular mood for talking and planned to say a polite “hello”, enjoy the ride in silence, and take in the sights. I liked were I was. Ottawa. The seat of power. The city felt like it was heaving a sigh of relief as elections had just come to an end. It was big but not sprawling. I was taken with its historic buildings and paced busyness. The people carried on as though they had places to be, but could spare a minute or two to help. I walked past one man in a gas station whose body odour reminded me of the traders under the hot sun in Balogun market in Lagos. I walked past another who called me his sister and was from Kenya.
Kide was short and dark; his head shaven and beardless. The pleasantries ended as the ride began.
‘How was your day?’, he asked
‘Why don’t you go first? How was your day?’, I said
He chuckled and then told me that his day was good. When I probed further, he told me that he volunteered with people with disabilities earlier in the day. After I told him how my day went, he asked where I lived. I said that I lived on the East Coast and that I had moved there for school.
‘Your family must be rich.’
‘Yes’, I said, laughing.
‘Rich in love, rich in faith, rich in hope’, I continued.
Kide shook his head as if I had said something wrong.
‘I mean money. Did your parents pay your school fees with faith?’, he asked with all seriousness.
‘No’, I replied. ‘We are comfortable.’
My answer confirmed what he suspected. He told me not to waste my parents’ money or disappoint them, and reminded me of students who were squandering their tuition fees on new cars and parties. I felt like he was restraining himself. Like he was going to tell me not to get pregnant out of wedlock but stopped himself. After I told him that I had my own ambitions and was not taking anything for granted, he asked if I was a Christian.
‘Yes’, I said. I regretted that for a moment. I wanted to see what would happen if I said that I wasn’t. I also had the thought that he would not tell me all these things if I was white. This tendency to counsel strangers is a thing that is decidedly African, I thought.
The ride continued. He asked me how long I had lived in the country and I told him. I asked him the same question and found that he had lived here for twice as long as I had. When I teased that he must be a rich man, having worked all these years, his voice rose slightly when he said that he had five children and had been working only for the same bills to claim his bi-weekly pay.
I told him that I ultimately wanted to go home.
‘Why don’t you stay here and build a life?’, he asked.
There it was again. This telling strangers how to live.
‘Canada is nice and I like it. But it is not home.’
‘Except there is a man waiting for you at home’, Kide questioned.
I let him know that there was no such man and that my desire was fuelled solely by my aspirations. He found that unbelievable.
‘What if you meet someone here and marry and he does not want to go with you?’
‘I don’t believe in springing surprises on people. The issue of where to live is major. We will talk about it before we marry. And if we do not agree on where to live, there will be no marriage.’
‘Okay. But are you seeing somebody?’
‘I’m not’, I said.
Alarm rose from his chest through his throat into his mouth when he asked me this next question.
‘Are you selfish?!’
‘Selfish?’, I asked, taken aback.
That one surprised me. I am conscious of my flaws and selfishness is at the bottom of the list.
‘No. I’m not selfish. My self-improvement is my priority.’
Kide was now engrossed in full-throated laughter.
‘I’m focusing on making myself a better person. I believe in marriage and I love love. I admire my parents’ marriage and I hope to have something like that one day.’
‘I don’t want to rush into anything’, I concluded quietly.
‘No’, he said in agreement. Perhaps that was the only point on which we agreed. Perhaps he was tired of me and just wanted the conversation to end.
The encounter left me thinking. Choosing to develop oneself before sharing one’s life with another being considered selfish baffled and bothered me. I did not feel anger. I felt pity. Not just for him but for many others who thought the same. Maybe I should just accept that people will live their lives as they see fit and I should live mine as I want. But we don’t abandon people who want to hurt themselves knowingly or otherwise. We counsel, we admonish, we befriend.
Sometimes I forget that people want different things for their lives. Sometimes I forget that people will learn only after they suffer.
But I hope all the women and men who read this will choose themselves, heal themselves, and love themselves before they do the same for another. And I hope that we do not put ourselves through needless pain and unnecessary suffering to love another. I hope we do not starve ourselves to feed another. I hope we do not bruise ourselves to heal another. Because even we are worth loving, worth defending, and worth prioritizing.