Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Best Things I Learned Living in Africa

This afternoon I was speaking to a woman who was a new arrival to Africa.  She asked me what kind of advice I had as she began her new life here.  I took the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned over the past few months.  After giving it some thought, I can say with some amount of certainty that I have learned quite a few things.  Here is a list of my top epiphanies (so far) about Africa:
  1. If there is hot water and water pressure take a shower and wash your hair regardless of whether you are dirty.  There is no guarantee you will have water pressure, hot water, or any water at all come tomorrow, so you need to take advantage of every bathing opportunity you can get.  The same premise goes for doing your laundry. 
  2. If you act like a tourist, people will treat you like one.  For anyone who’s been following my blog for a while you have heard a lot of funny accounts of bizarre things which have happened to me.  If nothing else, the police seem drawn to me, whether my driving instructor is being pulled over for texting or whether I am causing accidents due to my crazy desire to walk to the store.  But I often have people ask why I don’t take pictures of some of these unusual instances.  For one, I don’t like to draw any extra attention to myself, such as when I was standing in court arguing my way out of a “walking with intent to cause a car accident” fine. In other cases I don’t take pictures because I don’t want to be perceived as a tourist.  I’ve watched this happen to other people: A foreigner and a local “become friends.”  The foreigner reverts back to his role as a tourist by asking to take a picture of the local.  The local responds by saying, “Sure, give me five dollars.” I don’t want those kinds of memories. 
  3. It’s perfectly acceptable to play the “adorable white girl card.”  Speaking of being a foreigner, sometimes this helps.  The great thing about being a redheaded white girl is that I’m the only one.  I don’t blend in very well.  I try to, but thus far have been horribly unsuccessful.  But in some cases the inability to be mistaken for a local works to my benefit.  Every once in a while when I am desperate for help, such as when I need to get a beef permit so I can receive my package from home, being a “helpless, confused and scared white girl in need of rescue” can work to my advantage.  Somehow, that formula is irresistible to African men. 
  4. On the flip side, if you are confident enough in your abilities to convince people you are a local who does belong then you earn yourself bragging rights and respect.  I particularly enjoy demanding an African rate.  Most African countries operate on a three tier pricing system: citizens, African residents and foreigners.  In Botswana, and when I travel to other African countries, I love saying things like, “This price isn’t fair.  Who do you think I am?  One of those rich muzungus (white people)?  No! I am an African! You give me an African rate!”  I certainly don’t get the absolute lowest price that the locals enjoy, but I don’t pay anything near what the foreigners do, plus, I end up making friends. 
  5. If you are going to play a game of chicken, or start a fight, you had BETTER win; otherwise you may be taking your life in your hands.  Case in point: my recent visit to the Johannesburg airport.
In all reality I can think of at least another 10 best things to know about living in Africa, but I didn’t want to overwhelm the rookie.  She seemed a little deer in the headlights anyway, so I thought I would just let her ease into it for the time being.

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