There are few pleasures in life more sublime than being able to make small children burst into tears or flee in abject terror at your mere presence. Such are the joys of travelling in areas of West Africa away from the tourist trail and you don’t have to go very far to do that given the limited number of people who make the effort to come here. These kinds of reactions are usually an indication that the children have never or rarely seen a white person before but if you stay around for a few days they progress from an uneasy caution, peeking out from behind their mother’s legs, eventually, with some gentle prompting to a nervous handshake.
I wouldn’t want to overplay the issue for the sake of giving the impression of playing the ignorant savage card but white, rather than black is the colour of death in a similar way to our association of ghosts with the colour white. One example is the initiation of teenage girls into rural, secret societies, a rite confirming the maturing into adulthood and still prevalent in Liberia particularly (though I have seen it in the Ivory Coast), where they spend a period of time covered in white make up, signifying they are still dead and not truly reborn until full initiation.
Other, older children unused to whites simply gawp in incomprehension and seem incapable of knowing how to react, whether you wave, shake their hand or offer them a doughnut. As African men have very little body hair, which somewhat demolishes the racist attitudes found during my youth of Africans being like monkeys, some children are totally entranced by our hairy arms and legs and can sit for ages caressing our woolly limbs. Hark! is that the clatter of paedophile fingers on keyboards I can hear, googling “cheap flights to Africa.”
It has to be said however, that for most children, the sight of us foreigners are a source of unbridled joy, which has them jumping up and down in excitement. This is often accompanied by a sing-song chant, the words always being their own language for white person. One response I have tried is to learn black child or person in their language and chant it back at them – initial confusion soon leads to hysterical laughter, though you may have to keep it up for 20 minutes before they decide they have had enough. After a couple of days one group even did the combined white person-black person chant unprompted and stopped other kids from chanting at me. Consequently I bought them a new football and immediately attained god-like status.
The African system of respect due to age is well ingrained in most children, such that you won’t hear, “what have I got to do that for”, groaned at you when given an order from an adult, parent or otherwise. The idea of giving a child you hardly know a large bank-note and send them off on an errand is perfectly normal as, unlike back home there is no chance that they will invest all of it in a bag of super skunk, get shit faced with their mates, only to mumble,”yeah whatever”, when you enquire as to your money’s whereabouts for the previous two days when you finally manage to track them down.
Any Saturday morning bus ride into town in the UK is likely to be serenaded by wailing brats, bemoaning a lack of some pointless consumer product or over-sweetened confectionery. Either this or some perpetually tear-stained little turd objecting to why every aspect of human existence doesn’t revolve around him or her. You may be able to accuse African public transport of many failings but carrying obnoxious children isn’t one of them. Several youngsters can be compressed into a sweaty, noisy, exhaust drenched hell for six hours of jolting over decayed tarmac and not hear a squeak out of them.
So, parents, if you want your kids to grow up like their decent African counterparts: stop giving them stuff; ensure they have plenty of friends to play with; drill into them from the very beginning the incontestable fact that you are the boss and that no really means NO!.