One for the road

How Yusuf and the reggae star taught Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann driving etiquette

Yusuf and I had become buddies. He was my driving instructor, I was his student. I drove, he instructed and all the while we would listen to his beloved reggae star, Glen Washington, ad nauseum.

I had actually acquired my driving licence months earlier, but my mother was still not convinced that I could drive. Her suspicion was perhaps because my practical test was pretty basic, having consisted of driving for 50m down a straight, almost empty highway.

The theory consisted of the following:

“What is the rule of the road?”

“Keep left.”

“What does this sign mean?”

“Be careful of children and mothers crossing.”

“What tribe are you?”

“Well I’m half Luo.”

“Luo, okee, then call me Unco Owino.”

And with that, I was told to go to the police station to get my driver’s licence.

Despite my good fortune on the acquisition of my DL, it was agreed that I was to move from the Glory to the Rocky Driving School to learn better motoring skills. And that’s how I met Yusuf.

For two weeks, every day, we would cruise around Nairobi. Where we went was determined by who we wanted to visit—a friend in Karen, a brother in South C, a shop in Lavington. At times we dropped off his job applications in town. All the while we chatted and cracked jokes.

One day we were cruising in the industrial area. It was hot, the ride bumpy, our windows wide open, Yusuf sipped on a soda and Glen sang one of his sweet love songs.

On the way Yusuf stopped to buy some nuts from a street vendor. As is expected of street vendors in Kenya, the nuts were wrapped in a cone of white paper. I negotiated the crater-like pot-holes and Yusuf ate the peanuts. We hit the outskirts of the CBD. I wove my way through the intricate traffic jams and avoided the enthusiastic jaywalkers.

Yusuf finished the nuts and threw the white paper out of the window.

“Woi, woi, Yusuf, you can’t just throw taka taka out like that, at least wait for a bin.”

He made a lazy gesture with his hand, indicating that he felt no remorse. He said nothing.

At the red lights, I stared at him hard.

“You know Phirippa, it creates jobs.”


“Throwing that piece of paper creates jobs. You know, there is this story, about a shamba boy (gardener) who worked in somebody’s garden. Now his job was to sweep the leaves from under a big tree. Now, every day, he would sweep those leaves, then one day, he was so fed up with doing this, he told his boss that the tree was so troublesome so he should just cut it down! And so the boss cut it down. And you know what happened? This shamba boy had less work! When he came to work, he had nothing to do, so the boss said he should come only thrice a week. Then soon his boss said he didn’t need him anymore. And so, Phirippa he had no job, because there were no leaves to sweep! You see, when I throw this ka-taka-taka, somebody has to clean it, and like this I am helping people find employment.”

Food for thought, I thought.

Soon, through Yusuf’s guidance, I became truly competent to drive. We kept in touch, though we have lost contact now. But whenever I drive past the Rocky driving school, I think of him. I try to sneak a peek at the instructors. But I think he has moved on to greener, leafier pastures.

Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann is a half-Kenyan, half-German documentary filmmaker, based in Nairobi



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