Do not talk to strangers, said the mothers of children who grew up in large cities. Let’s face it, if a stranger were to single me out for a friendly greeting on the streets of Nairobi, I would cross two busy streets in quick succession, furtively glancing behind my back to see if s/he was in hot pursuit. This is the force of habit, which is reinforced by stories of kidnappers, organ harvesters, palms smeared with chemicals that put you to sleep, conmen who ask you to hand over your money so that they can pray for it to double and so on…
It was a pleasant feeling when I got to Bonn and found that the Africans living there more often than not will smile and say hallo, and just acknowledge each other. After I got over my surprise, I realized that it felt quite nice to do the same – catch the eye of a random stranger, nod and smile.
Of course, there are those that bury their noses so far down their chins that it’s hard to tell if they have eyes, but that is okay too. Since my last encounter with an over- friendly type from the Democratic Republic of Congo, I’m sometimes tempted to do the same.
I was far away from little, friendly Bonn, on my way to Maastricht, when I felt some two orbs boring into my forehead. I looked up, the buffoon said hallo, I said hallo back and what followed was an unpleasant encounter with a drunk, loud and disorderly man. “Obama is actually a Kenyan”, he started off, and followed with exclamations of “what dark skin you have my dear, what white teeth you have my dear… ” Very Little Red Riding Hood. And of course, in his own words, “I should have been happy to get his attention!”
By the end of that one hour journey, I began to understand why some people would rather not be polite to strangers. I felt I shall never return any glance, any greeting from a random black fellow again, lest he finds my teeth dazzling.
But then I got back to Bonn and on the train home, I couldn’t avoid smiling and saying hallo to the lady sitting next to me. She seemed to expect it. I didn’t mind. The bad memory had already faded.