THE racial or ethnic origin of taxi drivers in Perth often tends to mirror recent arrivals. Many are African. Some are Middle Eastern. A few years ago there were more Slavs. Perhaps taxi driving is what intelligent uneducated new arrivals tend to get into.
My Perth Airport taxi driver was an African man, bushfire black, in his mid to late 20s. Far from stumbling in his English, he sounded very much like what he soon said he was: a one-eyed Dockers supporter. And he had an Aussie accent, not exaggerated, laboured or feigned; more light and drawly. He had views on current affairs and politics, Julia and Tony, climate change, drugs, violence and pornography — as many subjects as cab and customer ever could cover in a 20-minute journey. How’s this, I thought.
He was unmarried, saving his money, and seeking to improve his education at TAFE as soon as possible. In short, he was as full of Aussie bulldust, bonhomie and optimism as any young bloke. He told me he was born in Somalia in 1984 and was the eldest of five children. He had come to Australia with his family, through the front door, in about 1995.
What his father had done blew me away. Apparently dad was an uneducated, rural, agricultural worker with no English. However, he had firm opinions about the business of shifting house, of upheaval and relocation, of emigration, of making it. Before setting out on the journey his father gathered the family together and told them emphatically, ‘‘We are going to live in Fremantle,’’ gesturing firmly with his index finger towards the ground.
Not Balga or Mirrabooka or Ballajura where a lot of other Somalis tend to settle? Arguably where the family would have wanted to go? No. They were to live in Fremantle. What guts, foresight, wisdom. Thus it was that this 11-year-old Somali with very little English enrolled at a Fremantle school. The only African. Tough times. Tempered by that fire, and the fire that followed, came an Australian.
How many of us, I pondered, having to leave our country for a very different place (Beijing? Moscow?) would force their family into such a wild unknown for the long-term benefit? How many emigrating fathers would even see it? What a piece of fathering.
Perth is a small place in some ways. Several months later, waiting at the first set of lights exiting the airport, my attention was drawn to the rear passenger in an adjacent taxi. He was a mate of mine, acting the goat. I responded digitally, as one does, and then recognised his driver. He was my friend the Somali Australian. In the minutes available I had much amusement, and pleasure, there, at the lights, shouting out my window and regaling him with his family history — he beaming his African smile, incredulous, unrecognising, all the while.
Eyes welled up. Then we got green.