Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seeing red

There are times when living the expat life can be a bit of a challenge.  Things happen that make you ache with homesickness, an ache that moves through your bones and goes right to your core.  An ache that makes you want to hop onto the internet and book a ticket home right away.  Today was one such day.
Like other places I’ve lived in, it’s an isolated incident that makes you want to hop onto a plane.  Most of the time life is quite humdrum and pleasant.  In Thailand it was the touts pretending to represent a travel agency who scammed money off me; in New Zealand a burglary that left me with just the dust where my furniture and belongings used to be; in Korea it was being nearly killed every time you tried to cross the road; in China it was the pushing and shoving, hoiking and spitting, and the globule of mucous left for me on my motorbike seat; in Angola it was my daughter’s camera being confiscated by the police because she took photos of some butterflies.  In Tanzania I have to say it’s the racism.  Not by the majority, but by a handful who target you because you have a white skin.
You see, a white skin seems to indicate that under that pale covering you are an ATM desperate to hand out cash.  You get charged more at the market than locals, parking attendants only demand money from you when you park in town, cops will pull you over and demand money for not having the right fire extinguisher, etc.
I parked on the main road, just around the corner from the market where I bought a small kerosene stove.  When I got back to my car, I was immediately surrounded by a group of young men all shouting at me, telling me I’d parked illegally.  Earlier on I’d had cars parked in front of me and hand barrows filled with pineapples parked behind me.  They had since moved on leaving my car the only one there.  Glancing behind me I saw that I was quite a few metres away from the corner so that was acceptable; I was the right distance away from the kerb, so that wasn’t a problem.  Their accusations that I had parked illegally made no sense whatsoever.  They crowded around me as I inspected where I’d parked, pushing me and poking their fingers at me, shouting, yelling.  One told me they’d put a thing under my tyre so I couldn’t move.  I guessed they meant a clamp, but when I peered between their legs I could see nothing on my tyre, no clamp.  At first despite their aggressive approach, I was calm and pointed out that I had not parked illegally at all.  Another pushed away some dirt with his foot, exposing a yellow square roughly a third of the size of a dollar note.  My front tyre was about 10cm in front of the yellow square which had been hidden under dust.  Obviously, I had to pay each one of the eight young men before they would let me get into my car and leave.  They had never met someone like me before.
I can be pleasant, I can be kind.  Try and rip me off and I undergo a complete personality change.
With my blood boiling I started yelling back at them, telling them I hadn’t parked illegally.  I threatened to call the police.  They told me to go ahead, calling my bluff as I didn’t know the number of the police station.  I opened my car door telling them I was going to drive to the police station.  Five of them crammed themselves into the back seat and one hopped into the front before I had time to lock the doors.  “We’ll go with you to the police,” they said.  “The police will confiscate your car and lock you up in jail.  You need to pay us the fine now for parking illegally.”
My blood pressure rose and I literally saw red.  After jumping out my car I ran around to the kerb side and physically pulled them out of my car with adrenalin-induced strength, still shouting and yelling at them.  They started crowding me even more, telling me that I was in Africa and I’d parked illegally and paying them the fine was the African way.  The way they did things in Tanzania.  This made my blood pressure rise several notches more.  “I too am a born and bred African,” I shouted back, “And stealing money from people or trying to bribe them is not the way we do things.  You are just criminals, tsotsis!”
I locked my car and stormed off to get help from the curio shop down the road.  The gang had my car surrounded, if I tried to drive away I’d end up knocking someone over.  A young man with a backpack approached me as I hurried back to my car with my dreadlocked saviour from the curio shop.  “They are corrupt; just jump in your car and drive!”  So while the curio man and the backpack man distracted them, I drove off fuming.  Nobody besides the backpack man and the man I’d called from the curio shop came to my assistance.  They all stood around staring, like they were watching a play.
Luckily, I calmed down further along the road when I saw that Nakumatt, the Kenyan supermarket, finally opened.  There had been rumours of its opening for months.  Whether it was the lovely clean air-conditioned shop or the stocked shelves I’ll never know, but I decided not to jump on the next flight out.
If life was always smooth sailing it would be boring.  We need the annoyances as well as the happy times to keep us sane.  Unfortunately what happened to me is quite common in developing countries where you have people so desperate for money that they resort to crime and corruption to get it.  That doesn't make it right, but it does put it in perspective. 

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