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Saraya's a Tanzanian mama
Who heads up a team called Obama.
Her guesthouse is the charm
Of Dar Es Salaam
But a drinks bar would give it more glamour.

There's something about Kiva microfinance loans that fills me with optimism. A feeling obviously shared by the members of the team, dressed up for the photograph.

I'm wondering why they called their group Obama. I guess it's the Tanzanian connection with US President Barack Obama. I dare say that the Kiva Team Obama thinks so as well, as they joined me in lending money to Saraya.

The group's fifth loan through Kiva, aimed at improving the guesthouse Sayara runs in Dar Es Salaam. I managed to dig up the loan page for the second loan, and there's another photo of the group:

I channel my taxi tips through Kiva, recycling the repayments into more loans and while it's not much, at $US25 a shot, it's something that makes me feel a useful part of a global team.

And isn't that what it's all about? We're all part of the same planet, the same biosphere, the same human family. Individually, there's not much any single person can do - unless maybe he's the President of the USA - but together, Yes We Can!

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Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle,
originally uploaded by skyring.

I ended my shift early last night, stocked up on hot dogs, sarsaparilla (another name for root beer, apparently) and Oreos, and staked out a position on the couch for the Obama inauguration. The Good Morning America coverage began with a shot of the Mall just as the first rays of the morning sun were lighting the tip of the Washington Monument, and already the space was crowded, with streams of people flowing in. By noon it was a solid mass of onlookers, all there to be a tiny part of history.

The GMA crew interviewed the spectators, asking, “Who has the most layers of clothing?” It was cold. Cold with windchill.

I’ve been there. I’ve walked through a bitter pre-dawn in Washington DC, and I’ve crunched across the Mall covered in fresh snow. That was exactly four years ago, the day after the second Bush inauguration, so I knew exactly how cold it was for the swelling crowd.

My wife and I had the city to ourselves then, and we spent a sparkling afternoon exploring the Smithsonians and marvelling at the wealth of art in the glittering halls of the National Art Gallery. But eventually the early twilight drove us outside, where we looked for a place to hail a cab. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, so many of the streets were lined with ugly cement barricades, but outside an impressive building on Constitution Avenue, there was a clear space. I set down my heavy tote bag with a sigh of relief and in a few moments a cab drew up beside us, just as I became nervously aware of the approach of a couple of uniformed security guards. Heavily armed security guards.

We hustled inside the cab and sped off.

“Crikey,” I said to the cabbie, a silver haired gent, “What’s the story there?”

“That the Department of Justice,” he replied. “They a bit antsy over Gitmo.”

Guantanamo Bay, where terrorist suspects were detained, had been the subject of some fairly high-level protesting in the weeks before our visit, so I guess that anybody carrying a bulky bag might arouse suspicions. After all, Washington itself had been attacked in 2001, and there were good reasons to be antsy.

The cab itself was an old model. Beautifully clean and tidy, but definitely showing the signs of a long life as a hack. I learnt later that the tax regime made it uneconomical to buy new vehicles, so cabs were operated until they fell apart, and this one didn’t have long to go.

We rattled through an intersection and I nudged my wife. “Look, the White House!”

“Yeah,” said the cabbie, “they got the wrong guy in there.”

We chatted the rest of the way to the hotel. He was interested in Australia, and we told him about the wildlife and the climate, stressing that we didn’t see much snow there. In fact it was summer right now, and we’d come straight from 30 degree heat to this snowy, subzero environment.

“Might move there,” he mused. “Might marry up one of them native girls, hey?”

We assured him that there was always room for taxidrivers in Australia, and gave him a small tip when he dropped us off at our hotel.

So when I saw Washington DC last night, looking frosty in the winter air, and joyous in the atmosphere of celebration, I remembered my own first fond impressions. Compared to Canberra, it’s a very different city, but there are similarities - the broad ceremonial avenues, the grand public institutions, the monuments and memorials. It’s a place where I can feel at home on the far side of the world.

“Aren’t you cold?” asked the television interviewer of one lovely old black woman, showing all her teeth in a fabulous smile.

“No, honey, I got my heart to keep me warm.”

There were a lot of happy hearts in Washington. A million strong, they thumped away and surged with excitement when Obama came out to take the oath. The sight of that sea of flags waving in a joyous tumult was unforgettable. I wish I was there, to share the excitement, to wave a flag, to feel the warmth of history and a glorious new dawn.

And somewhere, maybe in that crowd, maybe parked on a side street, listening on his cab radio, I am sure that there was one very happy cabdriver.
skyring: (Default)
originally uploaded by skyring.

Normally I'd take the line that the colour of a man's skin doesn't make him a better or a worse choice for a job. Your skin colour doesn't make you smarter, or more articulate, or a better leader or more courageous.

But in one respect, Barack Obama's racial background gives him an advantage.

No, it doesn't make him a better basketballer, though the smart money would be on him over John McCain or Hillary Cinton.

The advantage he holds is something that wouldn't have seemed that way at the time. He would have experienced the humiliation of racism. Not only at firsthand, but in the living history of some of the tens of thousands of Americans he would have met and spoken to in his political campaigns and career.

Lincoln might have formally abolished slavery, but for a century the ex-slaves and their descendants were legally second class citizens. Today the laws of racism and separation have gone, but as anybody who has spent time in the USA knows, there is a distinction that remains.

Those at the top are largely white. Those on the bottom are not. Anybody can see this, but for the first time, someone with a deep and real understanding of what this means is at the pinnacle of the nation.

Barack Obama is not going to initiate a century of revenge. Nor is he going to legislate for redress. But there will be a subtle shift in perception. Today the promise becomes fact. Today every single American schoolchild can look into a mirror and say to themself, "Yes, I can."

And the message goes out to the wider world.

We're increasingly aware that we all share a planet. Let us trust that Obama's messages of unity and community, of fairness and hope will be received with a deeper understanding. It's not about our tribe, our religion, our race, our nation.

It's about us.

And we've got a big job ahead.
skyring: (Default)
Four pineapples
Four pineapples,
originally uploaded by skyring.

I’ll be giving myself an early mark tonight, ending my shift before midnight to drive home for the broadcast from Washington. I’ve got some hot dogs, buns, onions, American mustard and for dessert, Oreos. I’ll see if I can find a bottle or two of root beer, but it’s hard to come by in Australia. I can always fall back on Pepsi, I guess.

Four years ago I got into Washington just after the second Bush inauguration, and it was a cold old town. Bleak in the snow, ice covering the Potomac, and homeless finding shelter amongst the grand monuments. But there were shops chock full of unsold red white and blue caps, buttons, scarves and nosewarmers. In the days afterwards I virtually had the place to myself, examining the Hope Diamond at leisure, and sharing the “Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom” with only a handful of other visitors, despite the fact that all of the grand institutions in which I rattled around were clearly set up for thousands.

This time around, there are going to be millions of visitors. Whole communities are hiring buses for the drive in. They want their piece of history. Washington will be a city buzzing with excitement, and I wish the local cabbies, creaky old black gentlemen every one of them, a windfall profit.

In Canberra, it’s hot and quiet. You could fire a cannon down any main road and not hit anybody except maybe a lonely cabbie looking for pedestrians.

There’s a bit of work available, but what is it with everybody in January? Does nobody have anything smaller than a fifty dollar note?

I start out with a float in my money bag. Two twenties, two tens, two fives and whatever coins I can cram into my dispenser, usually heavier on the silver than the gold one and two dollar pieces. I might have a few notes as a reserve in my wallet.

The first passenger offering a fifty I welcome with a smile. But the average fare is fifteen dollars and giving change for that wipes out half my float. Still, it can’t be helped, and I tuck away the golden yellow bill, known as a “pineapple” for its colour.

The second is greeted with a groan and the third pineapple just reams me out completely. I’m reduced to making change in handfuls of coins.

My wife doesn’t help. She raids my wallet for cash before departing for work, and at the rustle of notes I’ll wake from a sound sleep, muttering “take the fifties, take ‘em all, just leave me the little ones!”

Yes, it’s true - I love the little five and ten dollar notes with a passion. Give me a thick wad of the small notes and I’m the happiest cabbie that lived, but if I have a fistful of fifties, I’m haggard and wary, looking suspiciously over at my passengers as we near the end of the ride.

Which, of course, brings me to the classic old taxidriver story.

A late night cabbie, much like myself, is cruising the streets when he spots someone flagging him down. Just an arm frantically waving, and a desperate face peering around the corner of a hedge.

He draws up to the curb and a stark naked woman races across the footpath, flings open the door and dives into the back seat.

“Thank god you stopped,” she says. “The wife came home at the wrong time and I didn’t have a moment to...”

She stops as she realises the cabbie hasn’t driven off yet, and in fact is staring at her through the rear vision mirror.

“What’s the matter?” she snaps. “Haven’t you ever seen a woman before?”

“Well, yes,” the cabbie says slowly, “but I was just wondering how you intended to pay the fare.”

She leans back and opens her legs. “Will that do?”

“Awww, geez lady, don’t you have anything smaller?”


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