Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Liar Liar

It is customary here to invite passersby to come eat with you if you are eating. The appropriate response is invariably some form of “I’m full,” or, “Gee whiz, I just ate, but thanks!” Before I understood the rules, there were many occasions when I offended people by not “inviting” them to eat with me

Similarly, on an almost-daily basis I get invited to go to the fields with someone, which usually goes something like the following:

Them: “Tomorrow, let’s go to the fields together to cut millet.”
Me: “Sounds good, but... ooh, I’m all booked up for tomorrow. How about the day after tomorrow?”
Them: “Okay, that sounds good.”
Me: “Ooh… I might be busy that day too, but definitely the day after that.”
Them: “Okay, see you then.”

Anytime I have been in Bamako, people ask me where their present is (bread is a popular one). That goes something like this:

Them: “So you were in Bamako - how is everyone there?”
Me: “They’re all great, and they all said to say hi to you.”
Them: “Where’s my present?”
Me: “It’s coming.”
Them: “Okay, great.”

If I’m feeling creative, or trying to entertain a crowd, the following ensues:

Me: “You see, it was too big for me to put in my bag, so I hired a donkey cart and driver to bring it here. I’m sure it will be here soon.”
Them: “Great, so tomorrow?”
Me: “Maybe… for sure by the day after.”

If they’re persistent, two days later they’re back at it:

Them: “My present hasn’t come yet.”
Me: “It hasn’t! That’s unbelievable! The donkey cart driver must have run off with it. I’m so sorry.”

Another popular one is for people to ask for my stuff. I’m a little less crafty with that one, because it’s hard to separate the people who are just kidding from the ones who are simply shameless. They often ask for my watch, my glasses, my water bottle, or my shirt.

In that circumstance, I have a variety of distasteful options. If I’m pretty sure they are actually kidding, I can call their bluff (I’ve not yet gotten my shirt fully unbuttoned, but I’ve come close). I can pretend to not understand what they said for long enough that they simply give up – though someday soon that one won’t work anymore. Finally, if I’m pretty sure they’re not kidding, or if I’m simply sick of them (I’m a volunteer - not a saint), I can tell them that I’m not giving them my watch because I don’t like them, and if they want one like it, they should get a job. I try to avoid that last one, but hey, we all have bad days.

For the most part, it’s all cute and playful and fun, and it’s great language practice. The trouble is that I’m starting to know people enough that they’re not all kidding anymore. I’ve been invited to tea a number of times recently (the correct response is always “Yeah, this afternoon sounds great”), and clearly offended people when I stood them up. I’ve gotten so accustomed to blowing people off that I’m doing it out of habit now. They’re forgiving, but that’s particularly damaging for a new guy who’s trying to make friends.

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