Last night I went muzungu. It sounds like it is, going mad, going crazy, going zungu. It is a travel sickness of sorts, a symptom of the cultural ‘shock and awe’ you can feel sometimes in a new place. There’s no antibiotic for it, or vaccine, only time and the slow, repetitive, sanding down of your temper.
Still, it is not something that passes forever, and last night, the fever came back, as I stood in a small alimentation near the SP petrol station in Nyamirambo at 8:30 in the evening and gave the speech of the century to some thirty-odd passersby, as my taxi driver tried to extract Frw5000 from me for a trip from Kimihurura.
Bad part of town to come from into a taxi if you are white. That is what I have learned. If I have to go to the Serena, I say Sonarwa, and I walk the distance. If it’s off to the Novotel, better to say you are going to Meridien gas station just across the street, less for some odd, rare reason some person may try to rip you off because of what you look like.
My troubles started as I was leaving from band practice to go home to my girlfriend, who was sick in bed. As I walked up from my friend’s house on the hill, I was shocked and thrilled when a taxi that had just driven by stopped and reversed. He honked his horn and whistled from afar and I nodded my head and ran the rest of the way.
Usually I would just take a motorcycle, but I had to get home fast. After asking by the driver-side window how much it would cost, he said, “no, no, just get in.” I asked again how much and he just waved me in, saying that he was going to Nyamirambo. That obviously didn’t end up working out.
This man drove damn slow. My girlfriend has been on whole minibuses before and had the driver slow to a near stop in the middle of traffic because he was checking something on his cell phone, and this taxi driver was looking at his phone the entire time, slapping my leg, joking with me in kinyarwanda and showing me pictures he had taken on the phone of his wife and daughter.
It took us fifteen minutes just to get back to Nyamirambo. Just by the mosque he asked for my phone, and he dialed a number and I thought he was going to give me his contact, so that I could call him if I ever needed a taxi. He put the phone to his ear and started talking to his wife.
This is how Rwandans destroy their own country for other people. This is why foreigners sometimes disregard them and disrespect them. Whatever, I though, he’s nice and giving me a free ride, or so he said.
It was stupid of me to think this, and when he pulled over at the side of the road at the intersection near my house and rubbed his finger and thumb together like a poor hotel bellhop hoping for a tip.
I didn’t hesitate to take out my wallet, I wasn’t surprised that the ride wasn’t free, and I handed him a Frw5000-note and asked for change.
“How much,” he asked with a smile. Frw2500 I said. He laughed at me.
“That’s small money my friend,” and I told him that I thought it was air, after all, I had asked for a price before I got in anyways.
“No this is small money my friend,” his glasses hiding his lying eyes.
“Okay,” I said, “how much is it?” He said Frw5000. Now I laughed.
“5000?,” I asked. “cinq mille?” He smiled dumbly. I could have taken it worse, but I didn’t. I wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to have a reasonable conversation, this had happened too many times in the past, I wanted to address the issue at heart.
“Sir, please,” I offered. “I live here,” pointing down the street. “This is not Kiyovu, this is not Nyaraturama. I live here,” I emphasized. “I know what the price is, just give me an honest price.”
He responded by calling to a passerby and speaking to him in kinyarwanda. The man reached his head into the window and looked at me.
“Yes, sir, it’s 5000.” I grew more infuriated.
“You pay 5000 for a taxi?” I asked the man. He nodded yes.
“Everyday.” I opened the door to the taxi and got out and face him.
“You mean you take a taxi every day for five thousands francs?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He nodded again.
“I don’t believe you,” I said matter-of-factly, but he persisted on. Pay the taxi driver Frw5000, and yes, he said, everyday, everyday, he spent Frw5000.
Never took a matatu, never took a moto, didn’t have his own car. Just spent $10 one-way. Punching this man in the face would have been getting out of control. Going muzungu is only a little bit less.
It only got worse. Standing outside the taxi in the night on the side of the road I told the man passing by to keep damn passing by, and to stay out of my business, and I turned my attention back to the cab driver, telling him to simply just be fair.
I offered Frw3000. He laughed and said Frw5000. I walked across the street towards the electrogaz stall to buy electricity. I used the note in my pocket that I had been saving for him. I had every intention to pay, and even more every intention to pay an honest amount.
It’s one thing for someone to make an outrageous demand, but to persist with it is another thing altogether. I called a Rwandan friend on the phone; made it loud enough so that both I and the taxi driver could hear.
“Frw3500,” my friend said, and in my head I cursed him because I thought that was still too much. But I snapped the phone shut and looked at the taxi driver.
There was sweat on his forehead as he saw this wouldn’t be as easy as he thought, but still refused. He stuck with five thousand. I walked away from him and into the alimentation and he followed me in.
“Pay me, pay me,” he said.
“Give me a fair price, be fair, be fair,” I said.
A group started gathering around us and then he began talking to them in kinyarwanda, and in a minute, another man came up to me.
“Pay the taxi driver if you have the money.”
“I have the money,” I said, “and I will pay him, but I don’t want to get ripped off.”
“Give him 5000.”
I went Muzungu. The water had boiled over. The steam came from my ears, and I went into an almost-tearful Lincolnesque monologue that would be fit for theatre auditions.
“Why,” I said with a curse, “why do you have to be that way?” The crowd stared, and I launched at the river.
“You took my phone, you used MY phone to call your wife, and you drove slower than anyone! I asked you how much before I go in—I speak in Rwanda English for better understanding—and you say nothing. Wapi!” The smile disappeared and I could see behind my eyes that I was severely disrespecting him in public. I pushed on.
“You say five thousand? You think that is honest? You think that is fair? You would ask a munyarwanda for five thousand? Don’t treat me like I am stupid.”
And I couldn’t be stopped. I spoke to him, them, and all with a passion usually reserved for my private thoughts. And I became emotional.
“I moved here and live here because I want to love this country, and I want to be a part of it, and stupid”—another curse—“like that only makes me and people hate you. You think you are leaving a good impression?”
I knew they wouldn’t care, but I cared, and when you go Muzungu, that’s all that matters. After I calmed down, with a swirl of daze and adrenalin running through me, the cab driver said he would take three thousand five-hundred. We settled on Frw3250.
“It’s not good to try to cheat me because I am white,” I said, turning myself back to the crowd. I thought of my Rwandan friend’s mother-in-law, and said, “Bibi cyane!” Everyone laughed, but I was serious.
“What is your name?” one called out, holding out his hand. I had no desire to shake it. I shook it and said, “My name is Josh Kron and I live here in Nyamirambo. I marched out of the store and across the street into the night on to my house.
The taxi-driver ran after me. “Mr. Joshua, murakoze cyane.” I knew I had still paid him too much.
“We are friends, yes?” Yes, I said.
“You are like my girlfriend to me, yes?” No. No, I’m not, and that slick slim moment of cross-cultural clairvoyance passed.