Saturday, April 18, 2009

Street Corner Popularity

“My goodness!” exclaimed Kathy. “You’d think you were running for president!” We were stopped at a light on the Ouaga ring road and I had opened the window and was shaking hands with three or four phone card vendors that had been waving at me enthusiastically as we pulled up. These vendors can be found at every major intersection in the city, selling a variety of top-up cards for cellphones. No Rogers, Bell, or Telus plans here. Just pay-as-you-go pre-paid cards.

A number of these vendors in our section of the city are beginning to recognize me and wave energetically every time we drive by. This is partly due to the fact that we have a distinctive green Nissan pickup truck. But it’s mostly due to the fact that rather than ignoring them like everyone else does if they don’t need a phone card, I smile and wave at them.

I can’t help but admire these young men to a certain degree. Long days in the hot sun, dancing in and out of traffic, running after potential customers, and breathing all that dust and pollution... not exactly the healthiest way to earn a living!

Sometimes I stop to buy a phone card, first making sure that I will have enough time at the stoplight to do so. If it turns green in the middle of my purchase, the vehicles behind me will not be happy! As soon as I open the window, three or four guys are there, asking which card I want and in which denomination. They come anywhere from 500 francs ($1) to 10,000 francs ($20). I usually try to buy a 5,000 one. That’ll give me just over 30 minutes of local calling time (though most phone calls aren’t more than a couple of minutes in length) or up to 165 text messages (my preferred way of communicating cuz it’s so much cheaper :). Quite often, the guys already at my truck window will have a 5,000 franc card, but if they don’t they immediately begin yelling at one of their colleagues further away to bring one. The fellow comes running at top speed, the exchange is made (cash for card), and I’m off again.

At the bigger intersections, the phone card vendors aren’t the only people there. There are guys selling newspapers, tissues, candy & gum, and more. There are the inevitable Muslim beggar boys with their empty tomato can collection tins, occasionally a crippled person looking for handouts, and sometimes a woman with several small children looking for the same. A few intersections have a window washer, a young man with a pail of dirty water, a ratty looking piece of cloth, and a squeegee. When I see him coming, I turn on the windshield washer and the wipers, and smile. He smiles back, and moves on to the next vehicle. Friendliness has its limits!

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