That, I’m sorry to say, includes this writer. We talk of the famines, of the civil wars, the political unrest, the droughts, of piracy, of AIDS, and a litany of other challenges which, while Important, do not and should not be allowed to shape the character of this complex, colourful and compelling continent.
In short, we talk too much of the poverty and not enough about the people.
Today I want to tell the story of Hassan.
Hassan is a 32 year old boda driver from Mombasa on the south east coast of Kenya. While driving a boda – or motorcycle taxi – brings steady employment, Hassan is not a wealthy man. What he earns from taking me on the 15km round trip to the supermarket to collect of those Mzungu necessities (ok, ok, a crate of Tusker) would be the starting fare for any taxi in the UK – 300 Kenyan shillings, or about 2.50.
Hassan lives in his house, made of mud and sticks, just a short walk away from Diani beach which hosts the main strip of luxurious real estate catering for tourists looking for their own patch of paradise.
He lives with his wife and four children aged between eight and ten months. His house rests on a plot of land that was owned by his father and his father before that, all of the Digo tribe. The land has three different homes giving shelter to at least twenty members of Hassan’s extended family.
He grows his own food, including cassava, peas, bananas, mangoes and maize, which are fenced to protect them from the wild pigs and antelope which roam the area. And he has two cats, to keep the snakes at bay.
This, albeit, brief description has hopefully given you a picture in your mind of Hassan’s surroundings. But, much as talking of the strife that flares up in Africa will not give you a true sense of the people, this description, this description of facts and figures but of little feeling, will not come close to giving you a true sense of Hassan, the man.
Many who look at only a snap shot of Hassan’s life would say that he has nothing, and while Hassan himself would say he does not have enough, he does have everything that most people crave, whether rich or poor.
He has warmth, kindness, and a keen interest in others. He invited me, and my five travelling buddies, to his home and was the perfect host, providing us with sodas and chapattis while his two eldest daughters danced around in their Sunday best only brought out to impress on our visit.
He takes seriously his duty to provide for his family. While one of his daughters, Siti, already goes to school – and is third in her class according to the report cards Hassan presents to us with a look of fatherly pride – he is working hard to earn enough so this is a path that can be taken by his other children, selling his chickens, goats and surplus harvest to supplement the income from his boda.
He is a loving father who wants to introduce his family to new cultures and life enhancing experiences. From blowing raspberries on the belly of his baby boy, Mohammed, to playing an Improvised game with his young nephews using nothing more than the caps from our soda bottles, you do not have to spend long in their company to know that they possess the most valuable of commodities – happiness.
Hassan is without doubt one of the kindest people I have met on my travels. But he is by no means alone. I could have written this post about a dozen or more people I have met across east Africa, a dozen or more strangers who have become friends through acts of kindness which you would be hard pushed to better, even with all the money that comes with modernity.
The kindness of strangers is what makes Africa for me.