Thursday, March 5, 2009

Beware the Tubab-in-a-Taxi Two Step

The Westerner in Africa should be extremely vigilant about crime because 1) it is a fact of life here; and 2) if you are a Caucasian, Asian or Latino you stick out like a sore thumb. The hoards of jobless lumpenproletariat who come to the cities in order to find money are often quite bitter that the gravy train isn't as easy as plentiful as they hoped it might be, and if they see a foreigner walking down the street it is fair for the money-seeker to assume that that Tubab has in their pockets more cash and fancy electronics than they have ever seen.

An Important note: African-Americans are not exempt from this assumption. When actually on the African continent, they key word in the identity of an African-American is "American". If a man with black skin is wearing fifty-dollar sunglasses, hundred dollar sneakers then he is a "Tubab". If he can read and write and speak English then they are a Tubab. If a woman is wearing pants then she is definitely a Tubab. If Malcolm X were walking down the dirt roads of a Bamako slum, he would be considered a Tubab. And the pockets of Tubabs are bulging with cash.

Hamd'allah, I am now in my ninth month of living in Mali and have somehow managed to avoid serious theft. There was one time that the change for my bus fare was being passed back to me as is custom and the fellow in front of me decided to pocket my 500 franc piece and wouldn't cough it up until I pressed my nails into the soft spot of his wrist until it finally went limp. But other than that I have somehow enjoyed a streak of good luck which one hopes will continue.

The most important thing to do in order to avoid theft is to simply not afford would-be pickpockets or muggers an opportunity. If you for any reason find yourself in Africa, keep in mind that what you might consider to be a necessary fashion accessory can wait for another day. There's no point in wearing a watch because nothing is ever on time anyway. Don't ever bring your camera out at night if you ever count on seeing it the next morning - let someone else record your smiling visage at the dance club for facebook posterity. If you go out wearing fancy earrings, necklaces or bracelets of any value you are just asking to get mugged.

Something unique to Africa is that one should never enter a taxi alone and sit in the shotgun seat. New York taxis post a passenger's bill of rights which say that you are entitled to a seatbelt, a radio and incense-free atmosphere and a direct ride to your stated destination by yourself. In Mali... seatbelts?... he he... most taxis have shattered windshields and emanate smoke like they are about to explode. And the most important thing to know is that it in a culture where time is defined by the sun's position in the sky and punctuality does not exist it is perfectly customary for cabbies to pick up additional passengers en route.

If I were a down-on-my-luck Malian roaming the streets of Bamako with my buddies in search of nonexistent jobs and I could really use a cigarette - and there's a taxi idling at that intersection with a white guy in the shotgun seat! - there's a way that I could pay for that cigarette and maybe even an iPhone and a motorcycle. It's called the "Tubab in a Taxi Two-Step" and it's really simple; I and my buddies flag down that cab, sit in the back seat, and when the time is right we whip out our switchblades and put them gently along the Tubab's and for good measure the cabbie's neck and demand their wallet, their phone, and their purse/backpack. Due to the configuration of the taxi and the fact that taxis are as a rule private in America and Europe no alleged Tubab would ever see it coming, and they would be 100 percent helpless.

Apparently any cabbie worth his fare should know about this trick and should never stop to pick up more passengers with a Tubab in the front seat (I learned about it from a friendly cabbie who did just that and taught me this invaluable lesson about why I should not sit shotgun). But there are also less-than-scrupulous takisitigis out there who will precisely because they know where their buddies hang out and later that night they will get a cut of the bounty.

So in a conclusion, leave your valuables and credit card and wallet in the hotel - they are useless anywhere beyond your hotel, bring only small bills and change, try to avoid the unlit streets when alone at night, if you are alone take a cab, and when you do take a cab always always always sit in the back seat.

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