culture shock

The Culture Shock of Children’s Stories

Do you remember The Three Little Bears and Little Red Riding Hood stories? I’m using them as teaching aides in my English classes with Congolese adult students. They’re the only books I can get my hands on that have simple French & English side by side. At first I thought they would resent having to read children’s books in class, but we’ve encountered quite different problems. For starters, bears and wolves and riding hoods are completely foreign to them. And many times the English sentence is phrased in an old-fashioned, unnatural way. But today, I realized an even greater cultural divide.

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Funny Money

All newcomers here love to bring up the subject of money. There are a lot of double standards and funny rules when it comes to cash here. And cash is king – very few stores accept credit or debit cards, though that is slowly changing.

US dollars are used frequently in Congo, except in remote areas. There’s historical basis for this, mainly as a hedge against hyperinflation which occurred in the not-so-distant past. But today, it’s simply practical. The largest Congolese bill in circulation at this time is the 500-franc note, worth about 50 cents. When shopping for groceries where one can easily spend $100 or more, you’d need a briefcase (or at least a paper bag) full of francs. It’s much easier to pay in dollars, so that’s what everyone does. Most items are priced in francs (a can of tuna is marked 4000FC or so), but the store will quickly translate the bill to dollars for you according to their daily exchange rate, some of which are better than others. Then they’ll make change using a combination of dollars and francs. Needless to say, the cashiers are pretty quick with a calculator. The smallest bill I’ve seen in 11 months here is a 50-franc note, worth about $0.05. No need to carry any coins.

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Seb is not a nice man

Everyone here has a story about run-ins with the local traffic police. Sometimes these stories end with being taken to the police station, where the unlucky ones have to wait for our security folks to show up and negotiate. Of course this is even more of a problem if you don’t speak French. You don’t have to be doing anything wrong — in fact in most cases, nothing is wrong — it’s just that the cops like to pick on vehicles that look like they might be carrying occupants with money. They make a pathetic salary, and as a result rely on bribes and gifts to make a living. I feel sorry for them, actually. But nothing will ever improve if we keep feeding the beast.

So far we’d been lucky; no one had attempted to pick on us, until today.

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