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Flirting with the wrong girl - An African librarian in India

INDIA | Saturday, 7 September 2013 | Views [1498]

“But you said.....?”

Three little words that have never been uttered to me in India

In India talk is light, colourful and frivolous , like cappuccino froth, party balloons and washing up bubbles. Chatter is jovial, a pastime and a sport, for entertainment, jousting and exchange with only one rule: that it should never be taken seriously. Everything is said with a twinkle in the eye:

‘Yes ma’am its arriving in five minutes’   

‘I’ll be there at seven’  

‘I’m just parking now’

In India, spoken sentences have the charm of a flirtatious coquette; they pique, they make you feel good, they’re instantaneously pleasurable, but they aren’t to be relied upon. Not for nothing the bollywood images of playful chasing round the tree, wafting scarves and fluttering eyelashes:  Indian speech is the same girl.  Naturally she’s different in every country:  in England she’s the librarian, in France she’s an artist and in Israel..... well, if speech in India is a flirtatious coquette,  in Israel she’s a brazen unfaithful mistress.

In Somaliland, and parts of West Africa (those that I’ve visited), she’s lady justice: indomitable, regal, sword in one hand, scales in the other.

And here’s the problem.

I came to India from an oral society of swords and scales:  your word is your bond;  you do what you say you will do, a promise is a contract and your speech is remembered for posterity.

In a not unusual occurrence, a government official reminded me in a month of June:

“in our meeting on November 28th you said........”

‘wait a second....... [flurry of notepad]....no, what I actually said was....’

Yes, sometimes knowing my memory wasn’t as good as theirs they’d try to catch me out, telling me I’d promised things which I hadn’t so I kept copious notes of every conversation in case it came up 6 or 9 months later. To this day, despite two years living in India, I still keep notepads from 2011 ‘just in case’ (you’d think I would have learnt by now: in Delhi I’m barely held responsible for what i said two days ago).

In Somaliland, the strength of the power of speech was such that, not only were you accountable for commitments verbally given, you were accountable for commitments it was assumed you’d agreed to, if word had reached you, which, -due to the oral nature of society-, it was assumed it had.

One gentleman got very upset I didn’t attend an event he’d organised and was entirely inconsolable by the fact he hadn’t invited me. It was naturally assumed that one of the guests would have informed me and therefore my snub was registered. Word of mouth was the key organising factor – invitations were secondary. At an event, everyone who was meant to be there would be there, because it was assumed word of mouth would have reached them. I even received a  gift for a speech I gave at a graduation which I hadn’t received an email or phonecall for: it was assumed that someone would tell me, and of course I would attend. The gift was purchased, ready to greet me, nicely and lovingly packed, with a sheepish graduate to hand it over under the blinding spotlights of the local media.

Word was everything – but only if it was spoken.

 I remember a difficult meeting (with the same government official) holding a policy document which his minister had signed and now the government was reneging on. He thundered that his government would never agree to the conditions, I pointed out that his government had signed it. He looked at me as if I was crazy:

“yes it was signed but it was not agreed!”

In Somali culture, matters are decided by being debated and negotiated in a committee of concerned persons and agreed upon by consensus. Foreigners, not understanding this, land via planes for 3 day ‘field missions’ to extract ‘agreement’ in the form of signed papers and wondered later why their agreements unravelled.

There was an honour system. Promises made were kept, even the financial system worked on this basis: after an emergency, we sent money by word of mouth to the local hospital: I called a Somali in Wales, he called his cousin in Hargeisa, the cousin gave the money to the hospital. All within 4 hours. It was quicker than waiting for the banks to process a cheque.

I liked the idea that I should keep my word, I liked the idea I should watch what I say, I liked the assumption, that even if I had a disagreement with someone I should protect their reputation. I liked that if I promised it could be acted upon.

And then I came to India and I’ve been fighting ever since:

‘no no I cant come because yesterday I promised so-and-so we’d go to such-and-such a place’

‘What do you mean you aren’t coming?’

 ‘But you said seven o clock’

‘But that was an hour ago’

‘But you said you’d pick me up’

‘But we agreed on Tuesday’


I love lady justice and I’m not willing to let her go and its caused more fights, tantrums, thunderous phonecalls, than I will ever proudly admit to. Every time I begin a sentence with “but you said?” I am regarded with a look of wonder and confusion that says “hey I was just flicking my scarf in your direction while we danced around a tree, why are you acting like we’re in a courtroom?”


I know it’s a different country, I know I should have adjusted by now but I can’t quite give her up lady justice and I don’t want to.

That said, my scales have slipped:  in Somaliland tarnishing someone’s reputation with the spoken word was very poor form, in Delhi it’s hard to tell the difference between gossiping and breathing - I have succumbed. I’ve even (I’m ashamed to admit) not bothered to cancel plans knowing no-one expected me to keep them anyway

I know its normal but I’m not proud of it, and I’m still fighting with the world, defiant piece of africa wanting the dancing pixie to turn into lady justice. It won’t happen of course and despite the (multiple) tantrums I am lovingly tolerated; people just think I have weird-coloured cappuccino froth and my own strange dance around the tree.

Tags: africa, culture, delhi, flirting, india, somaliland, tradition, women

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