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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How not to treat my African relatives and other stories
















BY MUTUMA MATHIU

As a man of deep religious faith blah blah blah, I know I should be forgiving and what-not. But, try as I might, I never could forgive poor or rude service. Never. I may not make a scene, but I will never be back.


That is why I have been thinking about my insurance broker and a respectable insurance company that have been treating me, a well-paying customer, like dog droppings. But my own experience is trumped by that of a close and influential relative who travelled to Cape Town in the past week on South African Airways...

My relative had made the usual mistake of buying a budget ticket, the cheap ones which are non-transferable, can’t change travel date and you are stuck at the rear of the livestock section, where the seats still have ashtrays and retain the aroma of rotten tobacco.

IF YOU ARE EXPECTING, YOU HAVE TO keep tucking your pregnancy safely away from people rushing to the toilet next door. And when they open the door after their ablutions, something reaches out from the belly of the plane and grabs you by the throat and attempts to squeeze the dinner out of your gut. Having dinner in that section is a great test of character. Budget tickets are cheap because the only worse way to travel is on a mule with your nose stuck up its backside. The relative’s return journey on SAA Flight 182 of November 18 has been the subject of significant outrage and fair amount of mirth too.

Here is my relative’s story of woe. On that flight out of Oliver Tambo, there was no space in the overhead compartments for her cabin luggage which, in true African tradition, was no cabin baggage at all but a bag of respectable proportions and, more crucially, weight. But since her flight from Cape Town had been delayed and the captain was eager to get under way, a kindly hostess offered to stow it away somewhere and give it back later, in the interest of keeping time. She witnessed ,with horror, an hostess snatch the cell phone off a passenger and switch it off by force, even though the plane was still sitting on the tarmac.

On landing, she asked an hostess to please fetch her bag. “BEG!” screamed the hostess, “WHAT BEG!” Upon which the relative calmly explained (she claimed) the circumstances of surrendering her, eh, beg. “YOU DON’T JUST COME HERE AND SAY: MY BEG!” hollered the hostess who was now very angry.

My poor relative was helped by somebody else to reclaim her ‘‘beg’’ but even as she left the aircraft, the crazy hostess was shouting to whoever would listen about MY BEG. At the baggage claim it was quickly established that her luggage, all four begs, were not on that flight. She joined a crowd of angry travellers at the airline’s busy lost baggage counter. You did not collect your baggage sticker when you checked in your luggage, they were informed, so it was offloaded. The whole thing is your fault. But, we can deliver the baggage to your doorstep tomorrow if you leave your contacts.

Their country might be rich, they may claim not to be part of Africa, but their civil war experience, compared to the “real” Africa, is nothing.


The baggage sticker is normally stuck to your ticket or passport and in all these years of suffering at airports, I have never heard of a traveller having to request for it.

My livid relative could not understand why the South Africans were spoiling for Third World War.

Their country might be rich, they may claim not to be part of Africa, but their civil war experience, compared to the “real” Africa, is nothing. I have assured the relative that I have done thorough journalistic investigation into this atrocity, including calling in favours at the Kenya Airports Authority, the Civil Aviation Authority, the narcotics police and the Military Intelligence Corps and the Salvation Army (that’s a really army, right?).

In actual fact I just talked to the staff and it was immediately quite clear that SAA are using a small aircraft to service the Nairobi-Johannesburg route. The small plane can’t handle their generous baggage allowance of 30 kg when the flight is full, so I suspect they are not loading the baggage of the last passengers to check in.

Which would have been fine with me if they didn’t go pissing off innocent relatives.

We need to bring up to speed our cousins from down south, since they are new to the community of Africans, how we treat each other. I travelled with a group of men from a neighbouring region who sat, kicked off their shoes and ordered “Johnnie Walker”.

They had the smelliest socks I have ever sat next to. A pretty and friendly hostess plied them with “Johnnie Walker” the whole journey. Like good Africans, they didn’t become violent on getting drunk, they were kissing each other’s ears and giving high fives.

Kenya Airways always infuriates me because of their delayed flights. But I love the way they treat their passengers. Every time I promise it will be my last, then I go and have some horrid experience in some airline, such as being served fish by force, then I come back quickly.

THE ETHIOPIANS ARE A STRANGE RACE. But there is one thing you can never fault them for: their treatment of fellow Africans puts the rest of us to shame. It is the only country in the world, with the exception of our neighbours, where your being African is all the visa you need. They are not rich, they are quarrelsome and they have an interesting view of press freedom and democracy. But I respect them.

I don’t think my relative has the same feelings about the ‘‘beg’’ people.

*************

The African Union should send an army to have an argument with Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda. It should also be made clear to nations with territorial ambitions that there will be no South Sudanese solution for the Banyamulenge. A nation does not lose its right to self-determination just because its president is a fool.

The Congolese have demonstrated, like we all have at some point, a singular lack of capacity to govern themselves. That does not give anybody the right to go into their country and steal their diamonds.

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