I live in southwestern Kansas. This is rural America where it would be expected that a Black man would stick out like a sore thumb. You know, like those caricatures you read about in the news about Black families being hounded out of predominantly White neighborhoods.
That is not my situation though.
Garden City, KS is a real melting pot, to use a tired cliche. The meat packing industry is the ultimate leveler, it seems, at least for this part of the country. Of course, immigrants’ value is mainly appreciated in states where their labor drives the economy. Take San Francisco and its fruit farms…
Garden City has its fair number of immigrants. The last 50 years have seen a steady stream of people from foreign countries all coming to work in either the wheat fields or the meat packing plants. Garden City is Cow Town. The feedlots that surround it are legendary. A cloud of dust is observed by the driver approaching on any given day. The dust is raised by the hooves of a thousand cattle.
So, the latest group of foreigners who are being shipped to Garden City in droves are people from Somalia. You know the drill; the failed state has its fair number of refugees and the United States government, always the capitalist, knows this is a cheap source of labor. Every year a big number of Somalis arrive in the US and some of them find their way to the meat plants of Garden City.
Which brings us to their driving.
Americans are very good drivers. At least those in Kansas anyway. The big distances between A and B necessitate that almost everyone drives. There is no well-developed transport system seeing as the city only has less than 30, 000 people. Drivers start as early as 14 years old. By the time a person is in their 30s, they’ve racked up more than 15 years of driving. Everyday. Beat that.
So the drivers here are unconsciously good at it. They wait the unspoken five seconds when the lights turn green; they always park in the middle of their slots; they regulate their distances between the cars ahead of them…In short, the system works like clockwork (forgive the cliches).
Now when you take a Somali who’s grown up in a lawless wasteland where there are no rules and transplant him in Kansas, it makes for some colorful language. Facebook pages are decorated with residents bemoaning “these fucking Somalis!”
And its not racism. I have witnessed the skill of the said Somali drivers first hand. One year ago when I was freshly off the boat, I parked at the local Walmart and prepared to get out of the vehicle with my family. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this hurtling mass of … Jeep. The monster came to a halting stop just next to me. The two young men, who I immediately identified as Somali due to their curls and their high cheekbones, did not miss a beat; they just slammed their doors and headed into the store. This was before I even knew about the complaints of the locals.
To many locals, any Black person is from Somalia. There are many around here who’ve never set foot out of the county for all their lives. The cultural shock is real for them. They are of the variety that refers to Africa as a country. (These days, I do not bother to explain that I come from Uganda when that familiar question comes up: Where are you originally from? I just say Africa).
As an African driver on these roads, it took me a short time to recognize the responsibility that had been laid on my shoulders. If everyone else on the road takes me for Somali and by extension, a hazard waiting to happen, it is my duty to show them that not all Africans drive that way. In fact, I need to show them that to the contrary, I am a better driver than some of them even when they’ve been driving for years.
It gets worse when there are many moving parts. When it snows and the roads are slick, no one should be judged according to the amount of melanin in their skin, but do my neighbors even pause to think of that? No Jose.
That is why I am now an unofficial ambassador. I drive consciously thinking of Africa.