Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dealing With Distractions

The other day, Kathy had an appointment with the hairdresser, so we drove into town and pulled up in front of the Independence Hotel where the hair salon was located. Before we even got out of the truck, ambulant vendors with all sorts of products for sale began converging on us. This can be an intimidating experience if you’re not ready for it! Kathy quickly made her way to the hair salon while I turned to deal with the vendors, greeting them with a smile and politely indicating that I wasn’t interested in their wares at this time. I told them that my wife had all the money anyway, something that never fails to provoke laughter since no Burkinab√® man in his right mind would let his wife have all the money!

It wasn’t long before I spotted my friend Ghana coming to join the crowd. Back when we first arrived in Burkina, I was looking for an economical source for books. The big bookstore in town, one of the few places to buy good, new books, was horrendously expensive. The books in the used bookshops were cheaper, but often in terrible condition and, in my humble opinion, not worth the money I’d be required to pay for them (never mind the fact that they would look ugly on my shelves). I found my answer in the person of Ghana, a confident young man who was respectful and friendly, and gave me books and magazines at a good price.

Since I had some time on my hands while waiting for Kathy, I took him to a nearby place where we could buy some cold drinks and talk. As we were walking there, another young man appeared at my side and followed us. I didn’t know him, but wondered if he was a friend of Ghana’s, so I didn’t say anything. When we went into the snack bar, he came in too and sat down at the table next to us. I had just started talking with Ghana when the fellow greeted me. Slightly annoyed at the interruption, I nevertheless turned and greeted him politely, at which point he picked up his chair and moved it to our table. I chuckled inwardly, knowing what was coming next.

As I expected, he turned out to be just another street vendor, trying to sell me trinkets of some kind that I didn’t want. Firmly but politely, I told him that I wasn’t interested. But he kept on. I looked at Ghana and grinned. He grinned back. This kind of thing happened all the time and it had taken me a while to learn how to deal with it.

But during our first years in Burkina, when I was still young and naive, I’d had to suffer through an innumerable bunch of what I considered to be incredibly rude conversation interrupters. How many times I’d had to deal with irritatingly persistent guys trying to sell me something I didn’t want while the friend with whom I wanted to talk stood patiently by, saying nothing! After one such particularly aggravating episode, I had asked my friend with some annoyance why he, as a fellow Burkinab√®, hadn’t stepped in to help get rid of the guy! It was at this point that things were explained to me. “I can’t say anything because he’s a fellow street vendor like me who’s trying desperately to make enough money to survive on. If I tell him or even ask him to leave, he’ll accuse me of trying to rob him of a sale. That’s bad for relationships on the street. And he may even get someone to put a curse on me.”

Okay, I got the point. And I learned to politely put my foot down. “Listen,” I said to the current unwelcome conversation interrupter, “I’m trying to talk with my friend here and you’re disturbing us. Perhaps another time I’ll look at your stuff. But for now, GOODBYE!” The guy took the hint.

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