Thursday, October 7, 2010

You don't speaka my language?

Over the past couple of days in Pointe-Noire I learned once again that it is not the colour of your skin that makes you the victim of petty crime in foreign countries. I think what contributes by far more to a weak spot in your defence system is your inability to speak or understand the local language. While your assailants are discussing ways to rob you or what the best option is to dispose of your body, then at least you know what their intentions are and can start planning on your counter attack or getaway. Wherever I travel in Africa for obvious reasons I stand out like a sore thumb. Because there is a perception in Africa that white people are rich and consequently carry lots of cash, they always becomes victims of crime. Or that is the perception I always had.

A black colleague of mine requested a taxi to take him to a supermarket in town. He understands French perfectly (his mother is French), but he doesn’t speak it (he grew up in Angola, a Portuguese speaking country which don't particularly like the French). If you come in for the landing at Pointe-Noire's airport and you look down at the town, the first thing that you notice is the huge amount of blue taxis on the roads. There are definitely more taxis in Pointe-Noire than private vehicles, and all of them are Toyotas by the way. They out number any other form of transport by ten to one if not more. Pointe-Noire is actually called the blue town by locals, and Brazzavile the green town because they have green taxis. South Africans can stop bitchin' about "our minibus taxi problem" and come have a look here to see what a "taxi problem" is. So if you want to get around in Pointe-Noire, you will probably end up in one of these taxi sooner or later. As in many other countries where the taxis don't have meters it is always better to negotiate the fare before you get in. You are very likely to be charged much more than what the locals have to pay. So, my friend from Angola was on his way to the Supermarket in one of Pointe-Noire’s blue taxis…

When they arrived at the supermarket, the taxi driver still believing that he cannot speak French, in broken English offered to wait for him. No charge. He agreed and got out. Strangely enough the taxi driver also got out and followed him into the shop. It might raise suspicion already, but being in a foreign country anything strange might be quite normal for the people living there. Or maybe he was just concerned that his customer will disappear and not use his services to get back to the staff house. The taxi driver didn’t know what he was looking for at the supermarket, but before my friend found what he was looking for he overheard the taxi driver speaking to the sales lady behind the counter. “Whatever my client wants, if you don’t increase the price and give me my share, then I’m taking my client to another shop”. The lady behind the counter was clearly uncomfortable, but losing a client is probably worse than cheating one, so she agreed.  Not wanting to give the taxi driver money that he did not deserve, and not wanting to pay more for goods just because he is a foreigner and "cannot understand the language", he decided to leave everything claiming that he could not find what he was looking for. He felt like taking another taxi, but was scared that this might lead to more confrontation. He had to come back without his goods and decided he will get it at a later stage. So, no matter what colour you are, when you don't know what people are saying or you are not vigilant enough, someone might be doing you in. This makes me wonder how many times I have been done in because of my inability to speak at least 10 international languages...?

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