Monday, February 12, 2007

daily dose of life, African style

Daily life is hard in Africa--most people struggle to get the water and food they need, and there are constant difficulties with health, shelter, the heat, the government, and in many places rival ethnicities. Privileged western people like us don't have those problems here; but it's still a lot more difficult than in the States. Bills have to be paid in cash--checks and credit cards don't fly, here. And here where only a tiny percentage of people make more than $100/month, everything is far more expensive than in the rich U.S.: gas, electricity, water, etc. You have to run around and pay your bills in person with big wads of cash--now, even for internet service. There's only slow dial-up speed access, but it costs more than broadband back home. This morning at 9AM I went to pay my internet bill, and was disappointed to find only the office manager there, a woman with a conservative, Arab-style head scarf whom I've dealt with before. The men at the little internet start-up are all pleasant young guys from Benin--but in general, I find that if I walk into an office in Niger and find a Nigerien woman with a head scarf, it isn't going to be straightforward, nor pleasant. This was no exception. We asked to upgrade our service to a slightly quicker trickle, from 'Silver service' to 'Gold,' though I would liken it more to upgrading from 'Molasses' to 'Honey.' It took a week for them to do it, but they billed me the whole month. I explained that I'd be paying the lower rate for the time until they changed it. She said the bill was there on the computer and she couldn't change it. "But someone can change it, " I explained. She said, "Oh, it's nothing, a dollar maybe," (it was many times that) "when you leave here you might drop that much in the street!" I explained that if they want to have customers from the US and Europe, they can't do this What's-the-big-deal-just-pay-more thing, and have to be professional and precise. "But Monsieur," she replied, "You are not in the US."

How true. So paying my bill became half an hour of arguing, repeating, and, finally, yelling. When I told her we weren't getting anywhere, and to have the president of the company call me when he got back in town, she said she was going to cut my service off. That's when the yelling started. She was yelling in her African French, and I in my much worse French, which degenerated as I got angrier, until it was like the literal translation you get from using a translation program on the internet.

"Listen good, thou!" I yelled rudely; and she leaned forward, eyes wide and staring directly into mine, and said, "Uh-huh," as if eager to hear what I was going to say.

At this point, while my anger was running my mouth, some part of my intellect was commenting in the back of my head, 'What am I, her morning entertainment? She's enjoying this fight. Why does there have to be a screaming argument every time we pay the rent, or the electric bill, anything? The money isn't going to her. Is this the only way she can find for people to pay any attention to her? Is she that bored? Or, in a Muslim country where women are in a very secondary role, is this the only way women like her have learned to talk to men?'

Meanwhile, I was yelling, "If you want do business to Americans; thou make pay for what service just is!" And after all, what was she doing but giving me the business? I went on,"You have naught but 15 clients! Thou cut my service, I quit and tell all embassy people thou service nothing, behave bad!"

By this point, a quiet technician had come out to listen to what the shouting was all about. He patted the air above my shoulder, and said softly, "Let's be calm." He walked behind her desk and started clicking away at her computer, asking for details and receiving brief, clear answers from her explaining what I wanted. He changed the bill, coming up with a total slightly less than my calculations, apologized, shook my hand, wished me good day, and glided back into his office while she made change and wrote out my receipt. At one point while he was typing she tried to make a side comment to me, but I refused to either look at her or to translate her French in my head. The best way to discourage behavior, for dogs or people, is to pay no attention to them when they misbehave. I sat down and flipped through a magazine while she wrote the receipt, took my change without glancing at her, and walked out, saying "Have a nice day!"

1 comment:

MamaLana said...

Hello James! I was referred to your blog by your lovely neighbor and my dear friend Dina! Your experience with the Nigerian internet lady made me remember (a bit fondly) a somewhat similar encounter my husband had with the electric company in Rome about 25 years ago. (The gist was: oh sorry, our computer can only add; it can't subtract.) I also laughed out loud at your translation of your own French. LOL LOL (LOLing with you, not at you!) Thanks so much to you and Jennifer for your kindness to Peter and Dina. They will miss you terribly. Best regards to you dear Fulbrights! --Lana