When your Uber driver was a khat runner

Racing along Kenyan roads

Of course my Uber driver was from Africa. I have a long tradition — well, “long” in the relatively short life of Uber — of having drivers who either speak French or are from Africa whenever I’m on my way to or from airports in the US. The drivers quickly learn that I also speak French and spent significant time in Africa, at which point the airport shuttle becomes a salon of reflection and debate on French colonialism, African development, the small-world theory, and how Americans undervalue the older generation.

This driver was from Ethiopia, and I must say, I was a bit nervous about his level of driving experience when it took a few phone calls and a handful of wrong turns before he arrived at my pick-up point. Still, I settled in for the ride and the conversation, because the rest of the trip was out of my hands.

Two blocks up, he pointed out an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. “In Nairobi, the drivers would not dare to pass up an old person on the street,” he said. “If they did that, then the people in the pick-up truck would shout and threaten to get off. And then, if the driver still didn’t listen, the passengers would leave the truck, without paying. What’s worse, they would tell everyone in the neighborhood that Driver so-and-so didn’t stop for the elderly, and no one would give business to such a bad person.”

Put the map of Africa away — or at least, put it aside for later reference. Yes, Nairobi is in Kenya, not in Ethiopia. The driver, whom I’ll call Iskinder, had just begun to tell his story. He had fled Ethiopia when he was 9 years old, in the early 90s. He went with his family to Kenya, where they were settled in a refugee camp in Nairobi. The camp, he explained, was a horrible place to live. It was incredibly crowded, basics like food and education were only minimally provided, and refugees could not hold any formal jobs within the camp. Iskinder decided early on that his best bet was to keep refugee status but live outside of the camp.

He went to live, illegally, in the city, where part of his daily budget included bribes to the police. Whenever he was caught, he would negotiate a bribe, ranging from 20 cents to 50 US dollars depending on the policeman, the size of the town he was caught in, the time of the month, and a handful of other factors that were out of his control. If he couldn’t pay enough, he could be sent to jail. There was another alternative offered by policemen who wanted or needed the bribe money quickly. These policemen would handcuff the refugee and bring him to his neighborhood, where they would walk him around the neighborhood to raise money. Friends and neighbors, many of them also refugees illegally living outside of the camp, would come out in solidarity for their neighbor and hand over money to the police. The alternative, as they all knew, was jail followed by a trial. If the refugee was found guilty, he could have a criminal record, which would compromise his status with UNHCR, the UN body charged with refugee support and resettlement.

“So if I don’t get the money for the bribe, and the judge rules against me, I can’t go to the US or Canada or Australia,” he explained. “And I had been waiting for so long already.”

What had Iskinder been doing in the city to make money? Well, at first he had been an apprentice on the public transport pick-up trucks, and later a driver. Then, he got into driving big trucks, those massive, ancient vehicles from the 1960s that normally carried twice the recommended weight and had iffy breaks and axels. At first, the trucks he drove carried different kinds of goods, but then they were charged exclusively with khat.

My Uber driver was a khat runner!

He described racing from the khat fields into the city as quickly as he could. He would double cars and other massive trucks in two-way streets, swerve along medians and beside ditches, accelerate going downhill and push the motor to its limits going uphill. If another truck beat him, the people would have already bought their daily khat before he arrived and his day’s pay would plummet. The khat runs were what allowed him and his family to live outside of the camp, pay the police, and wait for their turn to leave Kenya for a promised better life.

Iskinder made it to the US just a few years ago, along with his wife and their first children of their growing family. With help from his cousin, he got an interview at a supermarket. The cousin prepared him for the interview by explaining him the importance of hard work in American working culture, and teaching him how to say “hard worker” in English. At the start of the interview, the supervisor ask Iskinder to say his first name. “Hard worker!”, he declared emphatically. Of course he got the job. How could you not hire a man named Hard Worker?

Iskinder refers to the supermarket as his school. He learned how to speak English, how to take on more and more responsibility, how to interact with Americans, and how to prove that he was worthy of his name, Hard Worker. As soon as he could buy a car, he started working for Uber during his days and evenings off, quickly making enough money to buy a second car so the family could get around when he was working. He, his wife, and their five children are happy and healthy in the US.

* * * * *

Would you have hired Iskinder if he came to interview with your company? He did not speak English, had only received basic education, and was not familiar with the American work style. What value would he add to your team? Even if he made it through the interview process and started a job with you, what would be the best use of his talents?

I’m sure that the Uber driver screening process does not ask about khat-running experience nor about apprenticing for public transport pick-up trucks. The supermarket interview process surely did not include a section entitled “respect for the elderly shopper”. Neither employer is likely to have asked about solidarity and commitment to a team, a value that Iskinder lived when scraping together money to pay policemen when a fellow refugee was paraded around the neighborhood in handcuffs. There was no Grit Index that captured the strength of his resolve when living and working in challenging conditions for nearly two decades. Did the employers observe carefully his skills and strengths when he started working? Did they ignore these job-related attributes and simply make sure that his efforts were aligned with the strict responsibilities of his job description?

Think about your employees. What prepared them for the jobs they have now? Have you ever asked them? Do you assume that they can only contribute to their work, and to that of the team, in ways that you identify and that align with their job descriptions? Employees can do so much more than that!

If you don’t already, it’s time to ask more questions to your employees about their experiences, their strengths, their values. When interviewing, ask more about experiences that seem less relevant to the position at hand. What did they learn in these positions that could be valuable to you and your team? When onboarding, ask about previous experiences navigating similar environments. Where are they already familiar with this type of organization, and what suggestions might they have to make it even better? During employee evaluations, check-ins, talent inventorying, internal hiring, and a thousand other under-leveraged moments, take the time to discover hidden skills and think strategically about how these could contribute meaningfully to your organization.

If you’re looking for a substitute delivery driver, it pays to know ahead of time that your cashier is a former khat runner!