Friday, December 31, 2010

African Vendors in Paris

We felt right at home when we went to visit the Eiffel Tower the other day. Even before we got to this well-known tourist attraction, we were confronted with African vendors wanting to sell us key chains in the shape of the Tower, lighters with a picture of the Tower on them, and models of the Tower itself in a variety of sizes and colours. As we were making our way along the sidewalk from the subway, they were urging us to buy something from them and, just like back in Burkina, they were even willing to negotiate the price! I listened closely as they chatted among themselves, hoping to hear someone speaking Mooré (the main language spoken in our area of Burkina), but I was apparently expecting too much in that respect because I never heard it.

Once we reached the plaza under the Tower, there were even more such vendors, though by now they were a global mix of ethnicities. Each had his wares (they seemed to be all males) spread out on a white sheet on the ground, trying to entice passersby to purchase something. But suddenly they all grabbed their sheets by cords attached to the four corners, picked up their merchandise in the resulting bundle and began running our way! No, they didn’t recognize me :) They were running from two policemen on bicycles riding towards us.

It turns out that these vendors are in fact illegal. Signs in the Tower informed us of this fact later on, warning us that the quality of their offerings could be inferior to those found in the official Eiffel Tower gift shops. But as soon as the police had gone by, they began trickling back, glancing around furtively as they set up shop again. Sure enough, just minutes later, the police arrived again, with the same results. Later on, as we were waiting in the long line to buy tickets to go up the Tower, we saw them coming through again. However, this time, they converged on a single vendor and arrested him. Interestingly, the other vendors, rather than running, gathered in several groups some distance away. For a moment, I wondered if there was going to be trouble. Were they planning on coming to their colleague’s rescue? Were they going to attack the policemen? But nothing happened.

It seems that the government here likes to make sure it gets its share of all revenue earned and these vendors are not contributing. For instance, tips in restaurants here are not encouraged because they're not possible to track for tax purposes. But to keep servers happy, a 15% gratuity is included in the price of the meals, which the government is able to track and collect the appropriate tax on.

Of course, I don’t know all the background or history as concerns this issue, but I’d be looking for ways to get these vendors legally licensed, even if it was just a small fee, rather than trying to prosecute them as doing something illegal. The salary of several license inspectors would surely be lower than the combined costs of policing, prosecution, and detainment. And the combined revenue gained from licensing could easily be higher than that gained from fines (which are also not always easy to collect anyway). In the end, everyone wins. The government gets its tax money, the vendors no longer have to always be looking over their shoulders, and the police can focus more of their efforts on real crimes.

The only losers, perhaps, would be the tourists who would be deprived of some entertainment. And stories, like this one, to write in a blog :)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Space Invaders

Our ride on the subway from the airport should have been the first clue. But we missed it. However, we have since that time slowly become aware that the French (at least those in Paris) have a different way of dealing with personal space than we do.

First of all, as North Americans, we like a lot of personal space. This is true not only when it comes to complete strangers, but even with people with whom we are friends. We avoid physical contact, and even close physical proximity, as much as possible. We generally make an effort to respect someone else’s personal space by walking around them, waiting until they move on, or sitting at the opposite end of the bench. If, for some reason, we feel the need to invade their personal space, we apologize for it (“Excuse me, but can I just get by you here?). We prefer to keep some distance, something that is almost always possible to have in our countries of wide open spaces, and relatively large vehicles, houses, and public spaces & buildings.

This is not the case in Paris. Streets are narrow, vehicles are small (even the tractor trailers seem small here), store aisles are narrow, parking is limited, and public & living spaces are crowded, requiring a creative use of space to get the maximum benefit from it (including the use of those narrow circular stairs). Thus people are frequently required to come into relatively close contact with each other. Yet, at the same time, Parisians are not a particularly warm and social people, at least outwardly. They generally don’t look at, smile at, or speak to strangers. They avoid any form of personal connection. What Parisians have managed to do is perfect the art of being personally impersonal. Of necessity, they are required to come close together to the point of physically touching others. But at the same time they are able to completely ignore those with whom they are in contact, behaving as if the others were not even there.

We first became aware of this in the stores. We’d be looking at something on a shelf and someone stocking shelves would come right up beside us to restock an item, reaching in front of our faces and sometimes even nudging or physically pushing us aside to do so! In North America, the stocker would normally work somewhere else until the customer moved on, or at least apologize for having to work in an area where a customer is trying to make a purchase. Another time I was checking product labels on a shelf, gazing intently at the products, when a woman walked right in front of me... without even excusing herself! There was plenty of room to go behind me, but she chose to walk between me and the shelf, even forcing me to step back to make room for her to do so! Walking down the Champs Elyées the other day to peruse the Christmas Market, Kathy was shoved aside numerous times by people walking along. Rather than making an effort to go around her, they just rammed her and pushed her aside, not even bothering to look up or apologize.

The other night at the Pink Flamingo, we were sitting in the dining room eating our pizza when an employee came in and began to make espressos in a machine on the window ledge right next to where Kathy was sitting. His butt was pretty well in her face and she had to move back to avoid yielding to the temptation to bite him for invading her personal space!

Of course, as North Americans, we first thought people were being incredibly rude here. But then we realized that they just have a different sense of space, one that is dictated by their physical and social environment. And they act accordingly, even when the situation makes it possible to give others a wider berth.

But knowing something in your head isn’t always enough. I’m still tempted to WHACK! the next person that walks in front of me when I’m looking at something in a store!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Supper at the Pink Flamingo

It was Friday night and we had an appetite for pizza. Yeah, I know, we can get pizza in Burkina and we’re supposed to eat stuff here that we can’t normally get in Burkina. This is, after all, the reason I’ve already bought five different kinds of cheese I’ve never tasted before. And why we’ve already tried out a Korean resto and an East Indian resto (both were taste sensations!). But for some reason, we’ve always associated Friday nights with pizza. Go figure.

Well, there’s no shortage of places that serve pizza here. But Kathy found an interesting place on the Internet that was just across the Canal St. Martin, not far from our apartment, called the Pink Flamingo. With its clever pizza names (La Danté, La Gandhi, L’Obama, La Che, L’Ho Chi Minh to name a few) and odd combinations of ingredients (gorgonzola cheese, figs, sesame cream, ginger, coriander, curry sauce, etc), it sounded like a must-try. At least we could claim that we’d never get that kind of pizza in Burkina :) So we headed up that way for supper.

It wasn’t what we expected. You entered one door to place your order and another door next to it to access a dining room. Just inside the order door, there was barely enough room for two people to stand in front of the counter. If one of their pizza delivery guys arrived and needed to get in to the back, he had to open the door, squeeze in with the people in front of the counter, and then close the door again before he could get around the counter.

Apparently the big draw of the Pink Flamingo is its unique delivery service. After placing your order, you can take a pink balloon and head to the nearby St. Martin Canal for a picnic. When the pizza is ready, they’ll deliver it to you by searching for your balloon.

It’s a pretty cool idea. But with temperatures hovering around the zero mark, we were not going for that option! Instead, we chose the dining room, with its garish pink and black colour theme reminiscent of a 1940s or 1950s diner. It wasn’t terribly warm in there either, but at least we were out of the wind.

And the pizza (La Macias: chicken with onions, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, lemon, and green & black olives), when it came, was absolutely delicious :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Credit Card Adventures

Ah, the joys of trying to use a credit card in another country! Our main credit card company is pretty security conscious (a good thing) and will put a block on our card if it’s used at an airport or in another country without advance notification (not always a good thing since we’ve found ourselves left holding the bag, literally, at an airport at least once when we wanted to pay for excess baggage). So I observed due diligence and notified them that we would be traveling to and using the card in France between these dates. So far so good.

Our first day here in Paris, we needed some basic supplies. Fortunately, we’re staying in an area that has lots of little marchés (like convenience stores but also with fresh fruits and vegetables). Believe it or not, most of these have their doors wide open and are not heated! The owner or cashier is wrapped up like we are with coat, hat, and gloves against the cold. This is definitely not a job I’d like to be doing at this time of the year! But I digress...

After picking a selection of goods in one of these shops, the cashier rang them up and I presented him with my credit card. He inserted it into the machine and waited a bit. “You need to put in your PIN,” he told me. “No I don’t,” I said, “It’s a credit card, not a debit card.” “Well, it’s not working,” he finally said and pulled it out. I urged him to try again. Same result. Well that’s just great, I thought. But it had worked when I bought subway tickets at the airport...

So I pulled out another credit card. Same thing. A third card... this time it worked. Whew!

Refusing to believe that the card had been blocked, I tried it again at the next store. Again it looked like it wasn’t going to go through. “You need to put in your PIN,” said the cashier. “There is no PIN. This is a credit card,” I replied. And because the little screen still said “Wait”, we waited. And suddenly the machine began spitting out a receipt and the screen said “Approved”! The trick seemed to be to wait a little longer than for a local French credit card. After all, the signal has to go all the way to Canada and back for approval, right?

Armed with this knowledge, I was ready for the next time. We were in a Monoprix, a small department and grocery store, buying hats, gloves, and thick socks. The lady rang up the bill and I inserted my credit card into the machine. “You have to put in your PIN,” she said. “No I don’t,” I replied. “This is a credit card, not a debit card.” She shook her head. “But it’s not going through,” she insisted. I looked her in the eye and said, “It says ‘Wait’ so let’s wait.” A few seconds later: “You need to put in the PIN,” she repeated. “Is it asking for a PIN or is it asking for us to wait?” I asked. She shook her head again. And suddenly the machine began spitting out a receipt and the screen said “Approved”!

I withdrew the card, signed the receipt, and took the bag with my purchases. As I left, I smiled at the cashier.  “Madame," I said, "I know my card!”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Home Sweet Home... Sort of

The agent for the apartment sat waiting for us at the kitchen table with the final paperwork. She turned out to be a pleasant enough person. We hadn’t been too impressed with her in e-mail correspondence. When she didn’t reply to our messages for information, we contacted the owner directly and discovered that she had gone on vacation! But now she was back and ready to look after the final details of our stay.

One of the things she told us was that when leaving, we had to leave the apartment as we had found it, ready for the next occupant. This meant a thorough cleaning and a washing of all bed sheets. Just what we wanted to do on our holiday, right? Besides, the fact that we needed to leave early in the morning in order to get to the airport on time would not permit us to wash and dry the sheets in time! No problem, said the agent. She could provide a cleaning lady who would do all that for us... for an additional charge... cash up front.

When leasing the apartment, we had to also pay a hefty security deposit. This is understandable when renting a place to complete strangers. You never know what kind of damage they may do. However, we were assured this would be returned to us if we left the apartment in good order. Now the agent informed us that the cost of the electricity we used during our stay would be deducted from the deposit and the rest returned to us. Wait a minute! We thought utilities were included! Well, they are... all except electricity. Guess how the apartment is heated? That’s right... by electric heaters.

So picture this: It’s winter in Paris. And we just came from Africa where it’s 20-30 degrees warmer. Temperatures that people here would consider cool are downright cold to us! In fact, we’ve been shivering since we arrived here! What kind of vacation is it going to be if we’re freezing most of the time in our lovely little apartment? And it would be kind of foolish for us to keep the heat turned down or off while sit huddled together and shivering in the apartment thinking, “This is good, this is fine cuz we’re saving a few bucks!”

But the apartment is cute. First there’s that neat spiral stairway to get up here. Then, once inside the door, we have a living & dining room combo with flat-screen TV, DVD player, and Internet access. A fairly modern and attractive kitchen is located at the far end. A doorway there leads into a small bedroom with a comfortable bed, armoire, and faux fireplace. From there, a couple of steps lead up into a bathroom area with a large modern bathtub, a contemporary style sink, and... an electric toilet. This, I learned, does not mean the seat is heated (though I wish it was!). Because of the space restrictions, there is no tank. The bowl is refilled via an electric pump.

There is another bathroom / utility room near the front door. It contains a toilet, sink, shower cubicle, washer, and the hot water tank. I think it must have originally been a walk-in freezer. It is cold in there! There a heating unit up over the door (yup, it’s electric too), but it makes about as much difference as lighting a match in a cold barn. However, it is possible to have a nice hot shower.

The front door does not have a handle to open and close it. You need a key to open a serious-looking deadbolt. There is also a latch to hold the door closed when the deadbolt is not engaged. The first time we left the apartment, we made sure we had the key with us. Upon returning, however, I could unlock the deadbolt, but couldn’t get the door open! After repeated tries, I realized that the latch was still engaged. I had thought that it too would open with the key, but this did not seem to be the case! Perhaps we had forgotten to engage a catch on the inside to hold it back when we left the apartment...

Now we were in a pickle. We hadn’t even had possession of the apartment for a day and had already locked ourselves out! And we had no way to get hold of the agent. Her number was on a piece of paper in the apartment! Desperate, I tried the lock again. As I was doing so, Kathy began playing with a knob in the middle of the door. I had already tried that. It didn’t do anything. It was just for show. But suddenly there was a click and the door swung open!

What happened? It turns out that the latch is also opened by turning the key past the point where it opens the deadbolt. However, the door is a bit tight, causing the latch to be pressed against the frame with enough force to prevent the key from releasing it. But in playing with the knob, Kathy had inadvertently pulled the door towards her, releasing the pressure on the latch and enabling me to finish turning the key. And presto... the door opened!  Just think, we were that close to being refugees again!  Brrrrrrr!

Excuse me while I go and crank up the heat a few degrees!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Refugees in Paris

Getting from the last subway platform to street level was a workout. We walked up several flights of stairs lugging our luggage and were both huffing and puffing like the wolf in the story of the Three Little Pigs by the time we got to the top. But any warmth we gained from this exercise was swiftly nullified by the chilly temperatures on the street.

We looked around for a place to get out of the wind and were happy to see a resto-café nearby. But as I opened the door, the owner came forward to tell me that he was not yet open for business. What?!!! You must be kidding! But he wasn’t. It was only 10h30 and he didn’t open until noon. So, dragging our suitcases behind us, we wandered up and down various streets like a pair of refugees, looking for a café or restaurant to sit in and get out of the cold. Believe it or not, we found that not one was open for business before noon!
As we were standing on the sidewalk trying to figure out what to do next, Kathy remembered that we were supposed to phone the apartment agent an hour before we arrived in order to give her time to get there and let us in. Since it was now 11h00, it was time to call. I remembered seeing public telephones near the subway station, so taking the phone number, I headed back that way, leaving Kathy standing with our suitcases on a side street.

Unfortunately, the public phones would not take cash, only a phone card. So where do you buy a phone card around here? I asked at a nearby newspaper kiosk and was sent back down the street I had just come up, looking for a little variety store. Finding it, I bought the lowest value phone card they had ($10!) and headed back to the phone to make my call.

Happily for us, the agent was already at the apartment nearby! In fact, we could have come much earlier, but she had no way to get hold of us to let us know. Just our luck to be wandering around in the cold when we could have been warm inside our apartment several hours ago!

I hurried back to get Kathy and we wheeled our suitcases to the proper address. Punching in the code we’d been given, we pushed open the big courtyard door and entered the premises. Now, however, we were faced with another door and a panel of buzzer buttons, none of which listed the name of the apartment owner. So I began pushing them one at a time and asking for the agent. No luck. Nobody had ever heard of her.

Kathy, meanwhile, had walked further into the courtyard and discovered a second set of apartments! Here she found the name of the apartment owner we were looking for. Within seconds, the agent had buzzed us in and we found ourselves in a little vestibule. Our apartment was on the third floor and to get there, we had to climb a narrow, circular staircase which led, at each floor, to a little landing in front of a single apartment door. Another free workout :) I couldn’t help but wonder how they ever got furniture or appliances up there!

The door on the third floor landing stood slightly ajar. We pushed it open and it was with a great sense of relief that we finally found ourselves in the place we would call home for the next several weeks!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Let The Holiday Begin!

We’ve been looking forward to our vacation for months. But when we arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris yesterday morning at 6 a.m., we were feeling pretty fatigued. The weeks prior to our departure from Burkina had been incredibly long and busy. Our plane took off from Ouaga close to midnight and we weren’t served supper until well after that. And we didn’t get much sleep on the plane.

Since we couldn’t have possession of the little apartment we’d rented in Paris until noon, we looked for a place to hang out at the airport after collecting our luggage. We’ve never found the Paris airport particularly user-friendly and things hadn’t changed since the last time we were here :) Making our way to the place in Terminal 2 where we’d be catching the RER (subway) into Paris proper, we found an area with tables and chairs where we could sit down. But it was on the ground floor with doors to the platforms at both ends, which meant the wind came whistling through every time someone went in or out. It didn’t take us long to figure out that this was not the place to have a nap!

So we went up several floors into the terminal again, and found some empty seats in an arrivals area where we could at least park our luggage and sit for a while. At a nearby weigh scale, a variety of Africans were weighing, unpacking, repacking, and re-weighing their bags. They had clothes, shoes, electronic equipment and more. It was far more than any one person would use, so they were likely bringing back presents for the family, or planning to run a little business back home.

Despite the nearby noise and entertainment, we did eventually manage to doze off a bit. But even there, it eventually got too cold. So we made our way back down to the RER area where Kathy remembered seeing a little fast food place there where we could go inside and get warm again. However, when we got there, the only table available was near an open door where the cold wind from the platform area had no trouble reaching us. Even with our cafés crèmes, we soon became colder than ever!

It was still too early to get into our apartment, but we obviously couldn’t stay in the terminal anymore. Hoping we would find a warm place to wait a little longer in one of the subway stations, or in a café or restaurant near the apartment, I bought tickets and we walked out onto the open-air platform to catch the next train into the city. Fortunately, we did not have long to wait and it was with thankfulness that we hoisted our luggage into the nearest car and sat down. Out of the wind at last!

As it turned out, it was also fortunate that we got on what turned out to be the end (or beginning) of the train line. As we travelled along, we picked up an increasing number of people until we were both not only standing up to make more room, but people were sitting on our luggage! Everyone was so packed in that no one could move anymore! I’m talking sardine comfort here! I’ve never been in anything like it! There were so many people packed into our car that the doors would barely close, and more were trying to enter at every stop. Had I been jammed up against complete strangers like this anywhere else, both men and women, it would have been considered obscene! But at least I was finally getting warm :)

I was glad that our stop was a main transfer station. If not, there is no way that we would have gotten ourselves and our luggage out in time. Not without everyone else disembarking first! Thankfully, most people were looking to get off here too, so we were able to exit without any problem. And after another short trip on another line, we were finally at the Metro station close to our apartment.

But we weren’t in yet...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

To Leave or Not to Leave...

With two presidents currently sworn into office in Ivory Coast, things do not bode well for the near future. The threat of armed conflict looms as neither the newly elected leader nor the incumbent president show any sign of backing down from their position. Closing the borders and airspace last weekend did not inspire confidence either. Expatriate members of our organization teaching at an institution in Abidjan have taken their Christmas holidays early and left the country shortly after the borders were reopened last week. However, the future leader of one of our language teams in Burkina is still in Abidjan with his family. He is in his final year of studies, but because he is a Burkinabè, he fears that he and his family will be targeted should violence flare up since this was the case for some Burkinabè living in Ivory Coast during the last conflict there earlier this decade.

So starting last week, after the borders were reopened, we began efforts to get him and his family home. Following some research into available flights on his end, he said that the earliest flight he could get was December 18th! So we did some research on our end and discovered that we could get him and his family a flight on 13th. However, he said he could catch a bus or train on the 11th. Not knowing how much time we have, we opted for the earliest option, bus or train. By either of those means, he should be home in Burkina before the next available flight would even leave Abidjan.

Then I got a phone call. All the buses are grounded for the weekend. Nothing is moving until Monday at the earliest. So I told him to check out the train. The earliest ride he could get there was on Tuesday. By now it was too late to get tickets on the Monday plane that was an option earlier. So I told him to get tickets for the train. It was more expensive than the bus, but probably faster and more secure, being less likely to be stopped at every checkpoint along the long road back to Burkina.

Only one problem. He didn’t have enough money. Forget a bank transfer. It would take too long. So I began researching possibilities with a money transfer agency like Western Union. Trying to find an agent located near the educational institution where he was a student (so he didn’t have to travel all over or across the city), was impossible. Western Union’s agent locator tool was useless to anyone like me who doesn’t know the city. Though the descriptions vary, the maps they provide show all the agents in a single location: downtown.

So I began e-mailing people who I knew had spent some time in Abidjan. By this method, I finally received a message from one of the professors at the institution (whom I did not know, but who had been copied on a message from someone I had written to). After some discussion, she offered to advance the money to the student from her own funds, and we could find a way to pay her back later. Wow, was I impressed! And thankful.

You know, when all is said and done, maybe nothing will happen in Ivory Coast after all. Maybe it will remain peaceful and we’ll be accused of having overreacted and wasted money in evacuating someone with his family when in the end, nothing happened. But that will be easy to say then. Hindsight is always 20/20. What counts is that we can’t say that now. At this moment, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We can only act on the information that we have before us. And the same people that might say I was overreacting if nothing happens will probably be the first to blame me if things go wrong. In the end, I think I’d rather be accused of overreacting than accused of negligence.

I’ll let you know how it all turns out :)

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Advantages of Being Older

An older couple arrived last week from the States to help us out as Centre Host & Hostess for the next 6-8 months here on the SIL Centre in Ouaga. Yesterday afternoon, the husband and I sat on the front porch to talk about the experiences of the past week. They are, of course, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all the new people they’ve met, the new responsibilities they’re learning, and the process of adjusting to a new living situation in a culture very different from their own. At one point in the conversation, he turned to me and asked, “Why would you let an older couple like us come to a place like this to fill the roles you’ve asked us to fill? We’re not so young anymore and the gas tank isn’t as full as it used to be when it comes to energy and stamina.”

I thought for a few seconds before replying. That’s about all it took! Three reasons came to mind almost immediately.

First of all, an older couple has valuable life experience. It’s true that some people grow old and wise... and some just grow old :) But I believe that most older people have learned some lessons in life that will serve them well in relating to others and working together to accomplish a task. Because of their experiences, some good and some hard, they’ve likely learned valuable skills in setting priorities, showing grace, being diplomatic, knowing when to yield and when to stand firm, and understanding different cultural & generational values and practices. Younger people bring energy, passion, and enthusiasm, but still have the hard road of experience to travel, for which there is no substitute.

Secondly, while most older people have less gas in the tank than they used to, they’ve learned techniques and strategies to compensate for their lack of energy and stamina so that they are able to achieve virtually the same results. Running increasingly low on brawn, many have correspondingly learned to use their brains to find ways to do things more efficiently, in ways that require less energy and effort. Whereas most younger folks would simply trust in brute energy, strength, and enthusiasm to run over a problem, older folks are forced to find ways over, under, or around it. Life experience can come in real handy here too.

And finally, older people can often be more motivated in their work and service. Why? Because they know they’ve only got so much time left and they want to make it count. For some, it’s their last chance to make an impact, to make a difference, to make their lives count for something besides keeping up with the Joneses and enjoying a comfortable retirement.

Yeah, I know there’s a downside. Older people tend to be less flexible and adaptable, more set in their ways. Some have simply grown old rather than old & wise, and can thus sometimes do more damage than good, especially in a cross-cultural situation like we have here. But in that case, our location here in Africa may be to our advantage. Only older people who have learned valuable life skills, have learned to compensate for their limitations and weaknesses, and want to spend some of their remaining time to make a difference in the world will have the necessary skills and motivation to get here. The rest will simply stay home. Something to think about, anyway :)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Death Among the Kasena

The elder brother of a Burkinabè colleague died a few weeks ago. A bunch of us from work went to pay our condolences to the family. Last week, my colleague came in to thank me for that. He said it made a big impression on the family that such high level people from the organization he worked for would personally come to offer condolences. Apparently this does not often happen.

I asked what would happen to the widow and her children. I well remember the time one of our employees died following a motorbike accident. He was from the Mossi ethnic community and his family immediately came and wanted to take possession of the man’s house, belongings, and children, and throw the wife out into the street! Had our administration not intervened, they would have succeeded. In Mossi culture (as far as I understand it), the wife is never truly a part of the husband’s family. She is always regarded as a stranger who has been allowed to come in as a wife and the mother of the children. But even the children ultimately belong to the husband and his family. However, my colleague, who was from the Kasena community, said that this was not their practice. The wife and children could continue to live in the family compound as if it was their own, but on one condition: the woman had to remain a widow.

What happens if she decides to remarry? Then she has to move out of the family compound, leaving everything behind except what she has purchased with her own money. The compound remains the property of the children.

I asked if this ever happens. Sometimes, said my colleague. However, she should never marry one of her dead husband’s brothers. He said that this is severely frowned upon and the unlucky man would not have long to live!

Another interesting feature of the Kasena is that anyone who had anything to do with the care of the person that died is required to wash himself or herself with water in which certain leaves had been boiled. This is done as a group (men & women separately) following the person’s death with the purpose of neutralizing the odour of sickness and death that has contaminated them. If this is not done, the one contaminated is also fated to die sooner or later. I decided that this was perhaps not the best time or place to point out that most people die sooner or later anyway! How could they know whether someone died because they were thus contaminated?

I guess we all have cultural customs and practices that make perfect sense to us but may seem bizarre or nonsensical to people of other cultures. Someday I’ll follow up on this one :)