Looking for John

On her first trip to a Zimbabwe in turmoil, this taxi driver had made her feel safe.

"Taxi, madam?" the drivers called out hopefully at the bottom of Kwame Nkrumah Avenue.

"Actually," I said, feeling as foreign and unsure of myself as I did when I first wandered here 10 years ago, "it's not a taxi I want. I'm looking for a taxi driver called John."

I met John in June 2000. As a raw correspondent on her first assignment in Southern Africa, I needed to hire a taxi to chauffeur me around the streets of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, for five weeks of my stay.

The cabs were clustered at the corner of Angwa Street and Union Avenue, down the road from Zimbabwe's imposing parliament building. There were lots to choose from: Min Taxis, the bright blue Rixi taxis, Number One taxis.

Unsteady after a sleepless 12-hour flight from France, I scanned the faces of the drivers clamoring for my business. How on earth do I pick? I wondered. And then I saw a driver at the back of the group, standing a little apart from the others. There was something about his face that made me trust him.

We settled on a daily rate. But it wasn't until I got inside John's taxi that I saw the black Bible on his dashboard. That well-worn book made me think of my father, a lay preacher, half a world away in eastern England.

In the midst of Zimbabwe's nascent political chaos, John, in his quiet way, made me feel quite safe.

He took me to the town of Norton to see tense locals queuing up to vote in watershed parliamentary elections, which were being contested by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) for the first time. He drove me to the upmarket Sam Levy's shopping center to speak to white shoppers.

Another day he waited several hours for me outside an orphanage near the suburb of Waterfalls, where I watched a toddler play in an empty birdbath and the pure songs of his friends lifted my spirits.

John spoke of his faith only once. "Evil cannot triumph over good," he said. I can't remember where we were – or what had happened that day – to make him offer that comment. But I've thought of his words often in the last decade as political violence swirled and fear gnawed at many hearts.

"That man was your guardian angel," my mother breathed thankfully when I was back on European soil. I didn't stay there for long, but that's another story.

Last week I decided to look for John. I knew it would take a miracle to find him.

In the midday heat, I walked from Harare's National Gallery to the glittering Angwa City shopping mall. First I tried to discreetly scan the dashboards of every taxi in sight.

Ten years on, Harare's taxi companies had changed. Some taxis now bore the name Yardenit. They were painted with the slogan: In God We Trust, Travelling in God's Favour. I wondered if John might have transferred to that company.

There were other new companies, like Walkwise, PathWorld, and Eazy Taxi. There was even a firm called Chambers Mini Cabs. But there was no John.

A soldier walked past in camouflage, cellphone to his ear. "How are you?" he asked. I realized I was attracting attention.

Zimbabwe's political crisis eased after the formation of a unity government between the MDC and longtime President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF Party last year. But still, few tourists browse the central business district.

A youngish taxi driver in a peach-colored shirt asked if he could help. I told him about John.

"He was middle-aged, a family man," I said, realizing how little I really knew about him. "He was a good man, I do know that."

Edwin thought for a few seconds. Pointing to a white cab parked near the Karigamombe Building, he explained that he'd been driving his taxi for several years and hadn't come across John.

"Things have changed a lot in Zimbabwe in 10 years," Edwin said. He sensed my disappointment. "Sorry I can't help," he added.

I crossed the road to the mall. Some of the shops had changed hands. But in the corner was that small boutique where, seven years ago, I bought a pink-and-cream pregnancy dress imported from Romania.

Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me. Edwin appeared. "I spoke to someone who knew the driver with the old Bible," he said. "He went away seven years ago."

Edwin left me his cellphone number to call "if ever I needed another taxi."

I trudged back to the National Gallery, strangely comforted. I'd like to think John is happily retired somewhere in Zimbabwe's vast golden spaces. Of course, I can't know that for sure.

So, wherever you are, John, I haven't forgotten you. You touched my life.

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