WANJURAH: Culture shock of polite insults

Sometimes one does not immediately realise they have been insulted
Sometimes one does not immediately realise they have been insulted

I had not noticed that I was overdressed until the passenger in the next seat politely suggested I should fold my heavy jacket and stash it away in the overhead locker.

At a different moment, I would have politely reminded him to mind his own business. Being rude in a polite way is a skill I am learning in a hurry after being on the receiving end of the oxymoron-like situation on several occasions.

Sometimes, the slighting sinks in so slowly that you only appreciate you were actually insulted way after the incident. Then, you are not sure whether to be mad with whoever unleashed it or to conclude, on account of glaring evidence, that you are perhaps a dimwit who merited the insult.

Part of the reason is that the offending is like a second nature. It is done so effortlessly and glibly that there doesn’t seem to be malice aforethought or purposed thinking. Often, it is accompanied by perfected affection: broad smiles, rapt attention at you and at the end of it, an “ooh, not at all” response to your offer of gratitude. I guess it comes with the British culture and the environment.

A particular instance comes to mind. A week into the new city, I was getting thoroughly fed up of junking on the bland meals essentially made of bread and more bread despite the funky names on the menu. So I resolved that I was better off cooking some real meal. That meant I needed to buy stuff I had last bought many years ago when starting employment life.

By then, I had three separate inquiries on different matters responded to by different people with the standard question: have you tried the Internet? A middle-aged university staff whom I had the misfortune of asking directions to the bookshop politely asked me if my first language had a name for the Internet! To spare myself such patronage, I made a shopping list and Googled for the nearest convenience store.

But there was a problem. I couldn’t locate two particular items that I hold close to my stomach: maize flour and a mwiko. Inquiring from friends, I gathered there was an African bazaar that reportedly sold West African version of Jogoo maize flour. I figured that where there was unga, surely there must be mwiko. However, I could not locate the particular outlet’s name on the Internet. I resolved to take a walk to the bazaar and try my luck with directions from there.

To augment my chances of locating it, I bought a map of the city. As I trudged on, I allowed myself to salivate at the thought of the meal I would be making. It would be slow burner ugali, the kind that sticks on the wall and browns slightly on the outside. For an accompaniment, I planned tender cooked boiler chicken that I had seen at the meat section of the supermarket. And because it would be all mine, I would have the luxury of deciding whether to start or end with the gizzard, the thigh or the breast. After days of crap food, I intended to indulge in a real gorging.

If I mastered the energy, time and the chopping knowhow, I would make greens from the British version of sukumawiki; a dark-green, cabbage-shaped vegetable. I could picture the meal. I could almost taste it on my palate. My appetite thoroughly aroused, my stomach rumbled so noisily I was tempted to wear my earphones.

But however how much I tried to locate the place, I just could not. After increasingly weary up-and-down walking, I took solace in the Swahili saying that asking does not amount to being foolish and sought help. To spare myself a repeat of embarrassing quips in the name of assistance, I carefully selected my helper. From my experience, elderly women, on average, tended to be kinder and less caustic in their comments.

She must have been in her 60s. A copy of the Economist magazine and a book on her hand suggested she was a lover of reading. I have faith that frequent reading mellows hearts by suppressing primitive emotions such as blind hate. Besides, she had allowed her glasses that were fastened behind her neck by a bright ribbon to drop to her chest. It reminded me of my favourite aunty. I thought she looked naturally kind. Summoning my best smile, I approached her with my problem.

Initially, she appeared to vindicate my faith in her. In fact, she went beyond helping me by sharing anecdotes of how anguished many people tend to be when separated by new lands from their traditional menus. She had lived in Indonesia for six months and hated the food so much that she ended her sojourn prematurely to be reunited with her British food.

She guided me to the store. I was overdoing myself thanking her for her troubles when she stopped me with a wave of her left hand suggesting it was unnecessary. What she told me next left me torn between anger and admiration at an intelligent insult. Did I say I was studying at the Uni as my university is simply known in the city, she asked? I said I did. Did I have an idea how “Trinity” is spelt? “Of course” I replied. Then how the hell could I not locate it on the map!

In truth, I was not as daft as she was implying. I was not looking for the name of the building in which the store was located. Rather, I had scoured the map for the name of a particular outlet. But before I could recover from her salvo with an appropriate retort, she was gone. Days after the encounter, I found myself getting into crimson anger in imaginary insults competition with her. And the session would end up with me feeling like she had bettered me again. It hardened my resolve. Next time anyone tried to be smart on me, I would have enough verbal artillery to even out my previous “losses”.

At least the British are wired to politeness even when trading insults. It is different in Spain. My experience at the Madrid airport killed my dream of visiting Camp Nou before I expire. An airport official appeared convinced that I was a potential thief who could never be trusted to collect his own bag at the luggage bay. When I tried to explain myself, he shut me up in faltering English with an observation that I was “asenòr who spoke English but did not understand the language!”

I was still smarting from his insult when I boarded the plane. It had been extremely cold when I boarded my previous flight, which explained my winter jacket. My dark mood scarcely allowed for unsolicited advise from a stranger on how to dress.

But the passenger spoke in unmistakable Kenyan English accent. In any case, he quickly added that he, too, had stored his winter jacket above. I found my self instinctively thanking him in Swahili.

He was the chatty type, the kind that wakes you up to ask you if you are sleeping. He had moved from Gatundu to Britain 13 years ago but as is typical with the Diaspora engaged in blue-collar jobs, he was evasive on what exactly he did for a living.  But he was immensely proud of Kamwana. Now that Diaspora would be voting in the next elections, he opined matter-of-factly, Gatundu’s son second term was as good as secured!

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