The Namastes of Africa
Namaste, somebody said. It was followed almost immediately by another cry of namaste. Pretty soon, I had a cackle of namastes from both sides. I looked up from my seat. I was getting some shut-eye in the backseat, being driven to my work in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and the popular Hindi word wasn’t something I had expected to hear on the way. Namaste, for those of you who don’t know, is a Hindi greeting welcoming someone into a new place or a new day.
As I raised my head, I saw the faces attached to the greetings. Street hawkers on both sides of the jeep, apparently happy at having spotted an Indian in their midst. They had their arms outstretched… some were waving at me, some were pointing, and some were showing me their wares; cheap pirated movie disks and strange kitchen utensils.
I’ve seen foreigners in India hounded like this by the street hawker equivalents there, chanting whatever foreign phrase they may have picked up over the years. But I never expected to be part of such a debacle. The driver was oblivious to this rather curious attention I seemed to have drawn, steering me to suspect that it wasn’t curious after all, and pretty soon, the namaste crowd was left behind and I reaffirmed my commitment to catching my 40 winks. At least 12, I determined.
It wasn’t the last namaste I heard during my stay in Nigeria. Before long, I’d begin to dread hearing the word.
Chances are that they picked up the word from some cheesy Bollywood movie that did its round in Nigeria. Whether they looked up the actual meaning of the word, I cannot say. But in Nigeria, they seemed to use it in a slightly modified context. By the occasions and manner in which they used the word, the word seemed to mean – “Hey, you, Indian. Yes, you. Give me money.” This explained the outstretched hands that weren’t selling stuff.
The namastes were relentless, but while it was irritating at times, it soon merged into the background. And it wasn’t an entirely novel sight, considering I was able to relate the scene to the way Americans and Italians may be mobbed in an Indian slum area. But that changed when the namastes extended to beyond the street hawkers. Random people of all age groups and varied professions started uttering the word as if it was a magic word; the ‘open sesame’ that would get my wallet wide open for them to dive in. Security guards, hotel staff, bar patrons… all with their arm outstretched, yelling ‘namaste’ like a battle cry; they weren’t begging. Oh, no. There was no pleading in their attitude. Instead, their faces contorted to give the unambiguous message – “Dammit, man. I learned this word. This word from YOUR country. Yours, not mine. Now if you’ll kindly fetch the money you owe me, I’ll be on my way. I don’t have all day”. At the airport, some of the ground crew were a bit more sophisticated. Their greeting went “Namaste. Do you have anything for your friend, sir?”
After a while, I got frustrated and started playing dumb. It wasn’t too hard, what with all the difference in accent.
They’d say “namaste”, and I’d greet them with a big warm smile, saying “Hey, and a hearty namaste to you too…” and then I’d take the outstretched hand and shake it vigorously. And then I’d move on. Of course, this wouldn’t deter them. They’d come after me saying “Ahem… I said… namaste”, and I’d look back at them, throw in another smile and shake, and act like I just met them. Sometimes, I’d just correct them “No, no, no. It’s pronounced namaaasthai.” Similarly, with folks who would ask me “Do you have something for your friend, sir?”, I’d say “No, thank you. My friends are not coming.”
-“No. no. I’m saying… perhaps you have something you’d like to give to your friend.”
-“As a matter of fact, I do. I just sent him a pair of trousers and a Green Day CD by courier. Now how did you know that? Uncanny.”
-“Ahem… I meant… do you have something to give your friend here… HERE”
-“Actually, it’s the other way round. My friends here have something to give me. They promised to give me a box of chocolates, and now I can’t find them at all…”
And so on. But none of this was helping the frustration of going through this charade everywhere I went… I was glad when I finally reached the airport, waiting in line at the luggage check-in counter, vowing that as far as possible, I’d never set foot here again. Even as I opened up my bag to the airport customs, in my mind, I was singing Pink Floyd’s ‘A Great Day for Freedom’. I was approaching the chorus, when my daytime reverie was sharply broken by the dreaded phrase…
-“I said… namaste…”
It was the head customs official. He had a grin on his face as he was looking through my passport. And he was waiting for a response. I was thinking “Come on… This is a senior customs official at an international airport. He’s probably just greeting me.”
“Oh. Hi. Namaste to you too, sir.”, I said, smiling.
“No, no. I mean… namaste” – He hid his fingers behind my passport so that only I could see his right thumb grinding against his index and middle fingers – the subtle international money gesture for money. I was stuck. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t play my dumb act, cos this guy had the power to seize my luggage, deny my flight, and throw me in jail for some trumped up charge, at which point, I expect, namastes would be the least of my worries.
This wasn’t a request. It was a demand; a clear bribe that was required. And my dilemma was in figuring out WHAT I should give. I was still not clear on the local currency exchange rates. Exactly how many Nigerian Nairas were required for such a situation? I had no idea. I had to think about this. I remembered quickly the deplorable state my hotel was in. I figured if a moderately high class hotel in this vicinity would be that bad, exactly how much worse can their jails be? Within a matter of seconds, I forked over all the Nigerian Nairas I had with me at the time. I was graced with the grin once again before I was sent to board the plane.
The flight wasn’t particularly comfortable. But the whole namaste business had me pretty shaken up, and I wasn’t thinking about much else. It would be quite a while before I could even accept an Indian good natured namaste. And I knew… by the end of the flight, as we disembarked, if the pilot and the air hostesses started throwing namastes my way, I’d roll up a newspaper and smack them on the head with it.