Let’s face it, the Congolese are sorta known for a few unfortunate stereotypes. Petty theft, grand theft, corruption of all sorts and sizes. It wasn’t for nothing that the term “kleptocracy” was invented (or at least seriously enhanced) here. It’s not true of everybody, of course; generalizations are just that: generalized. There are tons of positive things to write about, and I often do. But I have another side of the story to tell, a story I’ve held back long enough out of respect for the many wonderful people we’ve met. Today, I wanna get down to the nitty gritty. Let’s get stereotypical.
I’m talking about a relatively harmless but highly annoying habit that many of our friends here possess. I shall call it Gimmeism, or the disease of the hand which is unable to rest in any position other than straight out, palm up. For today, I shall speak only of a few stories that have happened here on our own turf, base camp. I have many more beyond these iron gates to share in due time.
One day back in July, 2012 (that’s how long I’ve held on to this story), I went to ladies’ tea as usual. We used to meet every Wednesday morning at the social club, where we would sit outside if the weather was nice, chatting, drinking tea, snacking on pound cake and fruit that the company had kindly supplied. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? We could easily pass two hours that way. We tried our best not to eat too much of that delicious pound cake, and instead we would divide up all the leftovers and take them home to our gardeners and maids. I took two oranges for mine plus two apples for Lucy the monkey. (By the way, the name I originally gave her, Coco, didn’t stick; but someone else tried Lucy, which did.)
On the walk home I passed a group of four employees — two Indians, two Congolese — and we all exchanged friendly greetings like any other day. Around the next bend I saw a single Congolese approaching, someone I had never seen before. I smiled and said “bonjour” to him as I do everyone I pass. But instead of the usual greeting in reply, he crossed the road to my side and stopped in front of me. “Give me one only!” he said. He wasn’t smiling, nor begging in a wistful sort of way. He was ordering me. I scrunched up my face as if to say, um, excuse me? He pointed to the fruit in my hands, then returned his hand to its palm-up position, repeating, “Give me one only!” He was wearing a long orange jacket and hat issued by the company and carried a walkie-talkie. A security guard, how neat. I considered sharing with him… it’s not as if this was my fruit, I mean I hadn’t paid for it myself, but it seriously annoyed me that he couldn’t even say hello how are you first. I don’t respond well to authoritative bullies, especially one who had most likely just polished off his own company-provided lunch bag, fruit included. So I ignored him. I turned on my heel and walked away, which prompted him to shout after me, “Ohh! Not nice friend!”
This was the first time something like this had happened. Our employees are generally nice, professional, well-fed people. I found this encounter shocking and uncomfortable, especially since he’s the guy checking to make sure our doors are locked at night. (That night mine certainly was.)
Soon there would be a rash of similar encounters, just steps from my own door. One day I returned from our biweekly shopping trip to find a stranger leaning against my house. He looked like that cowboy in silhouette, you know, with the hat, head down, arms folded, one knee bent against the wall. He seemed to be a construction worker or electrician who had wandered away from his job site to go take a little break somewhere quiet. When he saw me approach, arms loaded with sacks, he put his hand out and said, in perfect English, “Give me something to eat.” I had no idea how to respond to him. In my culture, a request like this is considered rude. And so is a refusal. The best tool I had at my disposal, or the only tool really, was to ignore him. He followed me partway to my back door and asked again. I ignored him again, went inside, and locked the door behind me. When I think back to that time period I realize that I had no idea how to say no. Something that I would get a lot of practice saying very soon.
Same thing happened a few days later, with a group of workers at the neighbor’s house sitting around doing nothing, resting their eyes while one guy was up on a ladder and another held it for him. “Give me lunch,” two of them said as I walked by, hands outstretched. Same thing happened to another expat wife the same day. Another day, another worker, hanging bamboo fencing in our back yard. “Give me lunch, mama,” he said as I left for my English class. This time I called his boss, first to make sure that he was being provided lunch by the company, and second to say we appeared to have some kind of institutional training problem. It may have been a coincidence but I’m happy to say that was about the last time we had that kind of problem on this side of the gates.
Except for this, and probably my favorite story so far.
I had announced to my English class that I was leaving on vacation, so there would be no class for a few weeks. I always save these announcements for the last possible minute in order to minimize favor-asking. Anybody who’s worked here as an expat on rotation can tell you that they’re constantly being asked to bring things back in their luggage for people. People want to order things on Amazon and have them delivered to your house in the States. The selection and quality of products here aren’t very good, and the prices are quite high, so I can understand why they’d want help. But I’ve heard of some pretty silly things being requested, like a box of markers, lots of dolls, TVs even. Once someone is identified as a good host, everyone comes from all directions to make their requests. How do you choose who to help, and who not to? Seb and I established early on that we weren’t going to be in that kind of business. We call our house in Congo our primary home; we don’t go out often like other expats who are on regular rotation. We go to the States or Canada maybe once a year; and when we do, we load up our own luggage pretty well with all the things we need resupplied.
So it’s kind of amazing that after teaching now for more than three years, not a single one of my students has ever asked me to bring something back in my luggage for them. I thought this time I would be in the clear again. But as I was heading back to my house, not even five minutes after my announcement, a complete stranger approached me on my back patio. A young Congolese wearing an apron and a net on his head; obviously he worked at the mess hall. He said to me, in French: I understand you’re leaving on vacation. Yes…? I answered, slowly, wondering who the heck had already spilled the beans. He looked very solemn, and said: I need you to bring something for me, for my family. I didn’t answer, I just looked at him, worried he was about to ask for some kind of life-saving medicine. That would make my no-carry policy a little tougher. He continued: I want a Playstation, for my kids.
I think I may have laughed in his face. No, I said and shook my head, smiling. But I can pay for it, he said. Sorry, not gonna happen, I repeated. But you would do it for yourself, he protested, as if pointing out my selfishness would help his cause. Yes, I certainly would, I told him, but you’re out of luck. My luggage is for my things. He continued grumbling until I motioned for him to leave. Thankfully, he did.
Guess I learned how to say no after all.