Friend – Boss

Every day on the way to my favorite snack bar here in Lilongwe (capital city of Malawi) I pass by the market. On my first day I must have looked like the stereotypical tourist peering cluelessly into all directions and clasping manically every other minute the oh-so-well hidden belt poach that was strapped around my belly, camouflaged under the almost transparent linen shirt. He spotted me with the eyes of a tiger. “Brother, come here! Look I have something to show to you.” In the end I bought one piece of his wood-carvings (his?) paying three times as much as my friend would the next day. I felt I had bargained like a pro, he probably felt the same. “I am innocent”, he told me the next day when I saw him and he saw me. “No, my name is Innocent”. How fitting, the introduction reveals more about me than about him. From this day of my first awful negotiation stunt I was initiated into the community of market vendors. Every time I now would stroll past their place I hear some of them call after me. ‘Hey brother, busy busy today?!’ ‘Friend, hey friend!’ ‘How are you my friend?’ Amid this outpouring of salutations it’s the torrent of pretended amiability that drowns my spirits. By the words’ original meanings ‘friend’ or ‘brother’ imply for me that I at least cultivate some deeper personal connection with the other person (or am born into it) than just having being outsmarted once when haggling over the price.

Am I taking this too literally perhaps? It may be that it’s just a set phrase born out of necessity, which these guys use because they simply don’t know my name. Or are they calculating that by calling me friend they will gradually tear down my resistance until eventually I will be so exhausted and call them my friends as well? A friend surely can’t deny buying some things here and there, can he? Once having accepted to be called someone’s friend (if he is your friend, then you must be his friend, it’s reciprocal after all) there might be this subterranean urge in all of us to prevent falling out of this person’s favor. You don’t want to lose a friend after all.

But after a couple of weeks greeting formulas began to change and I noticed how I was being called ‘Boss’ all the time now when I saw any of the guys. I was baffled about how to interpret this change of our relationships. In theory a friend could at the same time be your boss, but I suspect it’s not the way things were moving here. Semantically I was to be put in control (again) all the while our interaction was shifted onto a professional terrain with us now filling out formal, not private roles any longer. How the to explain the vendor’s sudden self-degradation, this change in tone? I was blending in their eyes into this group of mostly foreigners, mostly white people, who didn’t bother to engage with the market vendors. I lost the privilege of being on good terms with them and hence lost my status of ‘being a friend’. AT one point in time then I learned that I was considered selfish because I hadn’t bought at their place for so long. Apparently, keeping my money to me was interpreted as a sign of selfishness.

The slip in tone that signaled I was deemed superior to them in fact strongly demarcated the differences between them and me: me being part of the internationals, part of the group of Whites. This association reactivated a colonial mindset with its respective linguistic repertoire. I was the boss now. And this was not in the sense of ‘the customer is the king’.

I find it deeply troubling how these remnants of colonial rule seemingly become perpetuated through the self-degradation of the local market vendors in this case. I might have never been considered as an equal human being when called their ‘friend’ in the first place, but hearing people fall back into categories of ‘boss’ and subordinates is even more painful to face. Why is it still so ingrained in the speech of many people to salute others and me that simply happen to have a white skin color?

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