NL editie / World edition

An African Middle-class Hero

by Kees Broere

For years, taxi driver Charles Njau has been driving Kees Broere to Nairobi’s airport. Always precisely on time, regardless of whether he has slept and eaten. And often he hasn’t. His hard work has earned Njau a place in Africa’s growing middle-class.

An African Middle-class Hero Half past six, isn’t that too late? Shall we make it six; to be sure we make it in time?  Well OK, a quarter past six, that’s fine with me. See you tomorrow morning, friend! Have a nice day.’
For a long time I thought that in Africa a ‘quarter hour' didn’t exist. You can agree to meet someone, for example, at six or at six-thirty. Everything in between seemed to be nothing but a feint of time. Thanks to Charles Njau I found out that this is not the case. Instead, every minute counts.
My hero
For over ten years now, we have been seeing each other a few times a month. We mostly take the same route, from my home to Lomo Kenyatta International – the airport of the Kenyan Capital Nairobi – from where I take a flight further into the African continent. Never have I missed a flight; not once in all those years has Charles let me down.
From the perspective of his taxi we have witnessed and discussed the changes that Nairobi, Kenya and wider Africa have undergone over the past few years.
Charles, like tens of millions of other Africans, doesn’t pass up a single opportunity to further his family’s journey up the ladder from the lower middle class. Charles is my hero.

Always on the road
In the year 2000, he drove an old white Toyota, the type of passenger car you would see Kenyans drive en masse in those days. Charles, then in his forties, had secured a spot at a taxi stand at the Fairview Hotel in Nairobi. From there he could cover all corners of what was already a city of millions. Today he continues to do so, at any moment of the day and without complaints.
With the phrase ‘Okay, my brother, I’ll be there’, we entered the 21st century together. Whenever I meet him early in the morning (usually five minutes before our agreed meeting time), we start the day with an embrace. While I am struggling to keep my eyes open, I ask him what time he got home from work the night before.
More than a few times he has answered eleven 'o clock, midnight, or sometimes even later. In those cases he had spent hours at the airport, waiting for a customer who had been delayed due by snow or fog in cold Europe and who nevertheless had to be dropped off at the Fairway Hotel. Only a few hours later he would be on the road again, heading my way.

Early to rise
At six am, dawn breaks. From inside his car (he still has a Toyota, though in the meantime he has acquired one that takes up to seven passengers), we watch the city start the day. If it weren't for having to catch a flight, I would still be in bed at that time of day. But from Charles’ car, I see that, just like him, tens of thousands of Nairobians are up and about before dawn everyday.
After discussing the well being of our respective families, we comment on the most recent developments in the ever-growing city in which we both reside. By then, we are driving along Langata Road, an important but too-narrow artery, where the asphalt tends to tear and crumble in the rainy season.
“But they're working on it,” Charles notes good-heartedly. “See what they're doing at Ngong Road? A new layer of asphalt will be applied, and this time they'll really widen it, I'm positive. After that is done, they will take up fixing this road. And meanwhile, they began constructing that bypass. It will take some more years, but once they are finished it will make a huge difference.”

Right to shop
When we arrive at the crossroad of Bomas and Ongata Rongai, Charles has to decrease speed for the first time. The traffic police have already commenced their duties. While waiting for the “go” sign, we take a look at the outside walls of the new mall. This mall is more evidence of the steadily growing group of Africans – one hundred million altogether by now – for whom shopping in well-stocked stores is starting to become a civil right.
That is, if they have time. Middle class families like Charles' spend an enormous number of hours in pursuit of their increasing, yet still humble, incomes. Both men and women work outside the house. Their children, like Charles' three daughters, attend boarding schools and only spend a few months a year at home. However, after graduation more and more of them are entering college and graduate school.

Indispensable citizens
Just after passing the entrance of Nairobi National Park, a unique wild park where one can enjoy the view of the city's skyline, we get stuck in the first traffic jam of the day. We journey through a parade of every sort of car imaginable: tough SUV's owned by self consciously Big Business types with drivers, as well as the newest of the cheaper models that are proudly owned by those who just a little while ago had to cram themselves into matatus - the infamous mini vans for public transportation. For the first time in their lives these people own a car, and they work hard to keep it.
As the traffic halts to a crawl, a young woman takes advantage of the slower pace to pull the wing mirror towards her in order to put on some lipstick. A man takes both hands off the steering wheel to fix his tie. Another man lowers his window and in doing so, he allows us to enjoy the morning show he is listening to on Classic 105, the channel that examines the modern and sometimes hilarious relationship problems that this middle class struggles with.
I can't help but think of a line by the poet Ezra Pound: 'The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet black bough.' Anonymous people, indispensable citizens. Charles has something else on his mind. After dropping me of at the airport he has to hurry back to the Fairview Hotel.
Has he had breakfast yet? Charles, laughing: 'I've had a cup of tea! The rest will follow later.”


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Kees Broere

Kees Broere

Kees Broere (1958) is Africa correspondent for newspaper de Volkskrant and Dutch national television. He’s based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. He worked in South Asia and Latin America before moving to Africa in 1998.


"We journalists will again be doing our best in 2011 to inform the public about all the urgent events and developments in our wondrous world. And chances are that once again we won’t find the time to pay any attention to those unsung heroes who are, in fact, the silent power behind society. That’s why I wanted to begin my New Year turning the spotlight on one unique individual.”