One of the first principles drummed into everyone coming to Burkina is the importance of greeting (saluer) everyone you meet – a handshake, a general enquiry ‘ca va?’ perhaps a further enquiry about health or family, or the day so far. And all the expats working here have their own story of when they omitted to do this. In my case, one day early on, when I was feeling hot and bothered, I failed to greet the security guard at the cashpoint; he then watched while I parked and locked my bike, incurring the usual fee of 25 or 50 cfa (around 4 or 8 English pence) for the privilege, gathered my stuff together and made my way over, before informing me – with, I suspect, a certain satisfaction – that the machine wasn’t working. When I had cooled off a bit, and found some cash elsewhere, I apologised and we are now on good terms.
Several times, people have said to me that they greeted me on the road when I was on my bike and that I did not respond. I usually explain that when I am out on my bike, all my attention is on the road and on avoiding the potholes. The reality may also be that I didn’t recognise them out of context, didn’t hear them above the background noise, or took them for one of the total strangers who greet me all the time, simply because a toubabou on a bike is a novelty.
Well, last weekend I got it wrong again, but in a different way. I was invited to a 'baptême'in the neighbourhood – in this case a Muslim one; they all seem to involve killing a sheep and having a street party. I was 'presented' to lots of people and shook hands and greeted them all politely. Then I was presented to the father of one of the 2 babies, and held out my hand with a warm smile – but did not get the usual warm response. A little later one of my friends explained that these particular Muslims – Sunni I think – do not greet women. We live and learn. But it was a good all day party, men and women celebrating separately, children running everywhere