A couple of things set Obinna Okeagu apart from the rest of Derry’s taxi drivers.
One is the stunning blue Mercedes he uses to collect and drop off his fares.
The other is that he is believed to be the city’s first black African cabbie.
Born in the state of Enugu in eastern Nigeria, Obinna, or ‘Austin’ as he is known locally, moved to Ireland over 12 years ago.
Initially he lived with an uncle in Belfast before he met his Derry-born partner. They have been together for 11 years and have two children – a boy and a girl aged eight and ten.
After settling in Derry, Obinna decided to pursue a career in the taxi industry. It was a natural choice for the 41-year-old as he worked in transport back home in Nigeria.
“It was a job I had done before and I was really interested in it,” he said.
“When I came to Derry I met some friends and they introduced me to a man in the Ráthmór Centre. At that time I had only held a UK licence for two years and you have to have it three years before you can taxi.
“So I started lessons and once I had my three years done I went for the exam. I failed it the first time but the next time I passed.”
Like most towns and cities, Derry is in the grip of a taxi driver shortage. When the Covid pandemic struck it forced thousands of cabbies out of work. Many of them either decided to reskill or simply retire.
In a bid to address the scarcity the North West Migrants Forum has linked up with Foyle Taxi Co to encourage more people of a minority ethnic background to consider the industry as a career path.
Obinna works with City Cabs, another busy Derry firm. He has been on the road for four years now and thoroughly enjoys his job.
“It is a good job if you put your mind to it. If you believe in the job you are doing, you will make it. Running a taxi is expensive but if you work hard it can be a very good job.”
An average week sees the softly spoken Nigerian put in, on average, 40 hours. And while he likes the work, it is not without its challenges.
Unfortunately the ugly spectre of racism has raised its head on occasion. But only very rarely.
“I don’t take it personally because I know it is going to happen. Racism is all over the world and if you take it personally it becomes a big deal. I don’t mind it, for me I drop you off, you pay me the money, everyone is happy.
“Derry people are friendly but you know that everywhere in the world there are good people and there are bad people.
“It doesn’t happen very often and I know there are plenty of other people taxiing who have been through a lot too. Everyone has their problems and issues.”
Another challenge – albeit a less unsavoury one – is Derry’s geography. It can be a task keeping a mental map of every road, street and housing estate.
It is hard to know everywhere,” admits Obinna.
“You know all the areas but it takes a lot to know every street and every place.”
Ultimately Obinna Okeagu is a man content with his job and his line of work. And he says that with the right attitude, others of a minority ethnic background can be too.
I am very happy. I am the first black African taxi driver in Derry but I would encourage more black people to consider it. Derry’s black population is growing and there are many Nigerians here now.
“I tell them that if they work hard, they can get into taxiing. I explain that if they don’t have the licence it will take them three years. But hopefully some of them will think about it.”
As for his homeland, Obinna travels every year to see his family in Nigeria. But Derry is very much in his heart.
“I like it here and I like the people. Derry is my second home.
“Nigeria is home and nowhere is the same as your home. But this is my second home and I am happy here.”