You haven’t lived until you’ve been surrounded by an ever-growing angry mob of West African criminals.
“Not that old phrase!” you’re probably thinking.
I know. I’ll try to use less common sayings from here on out. It just fit too well with the story I am about to tell you.
It was during the summer of 1998 or 99 and we were traveling through the countryside in Côte d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) and spotted a picturesque roadside market on the…side of the road. (Dadgummit! I walked right into that one.)
It was quite busy, so we carefully pulled in and found someplace to park. I was with two of my good friends, Ryan and Jed, and our wonderful host, Kuami.
Kuami is a fascinating and brilliant man. He is native to West Africa and spoke fluent English. His use of the word “dilapidated” caught me off guard one day when were walking, hand-in-hand (a custom there when in conversation, even among men…it made me feel funny) and carrying on a conversation.
But his linguistic acumen did not stop there. He taught English and German
and spoke fluently a total of 16 different languages and dialects.
The four of us split up and starting looking at the various wares for sale. We found a couple of handmade knickknacks for souvenirs, took a few pictures and re-grouped as we got ready to depart.
Before we got back to the car, though, two agitated men, in their early twenties, approached us and confronted Kuami.
I couldn’t understand a word that was being said, but the angry tone told me enough to make me nervous. We three skinny white boys watched as the discussion got more heated, glances were being made at Ryan, and Kuami was…smiling?!
Not a grin, or a smirk, or a nervous twitch. He was beaming! Smiling from ear to ear!
“Give me your camera.” Kuami said forcefully to Ryan with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Why do you want my camera?!” Ryan asked.
“These men are criminals and they saw you take a picture of them. They are afraid you are going to take it to the authorities. Give me your camera.” The smile never left his face.
The tension continued to mount and more and more people were crowding around us. Not one had any interest in helping to ease the conflict, either. They were all starting to get worked up, and the crowd kept growing.
Kuami grabbed the camera. “Don’t give it to them!” Ryan said. “Just give them the film!”
We all reached forward and multiple nervous hands tried to pry open his camera. The men were shouting at us. I still couldn’t understand a word, but it was probably something like “Give us the camera!”
Finally the camera snapped open, revealing a partially used roll of film. Kuami aggressively started pulling out the film, just like they do in the movies. I don’t think cameras like that very much.
And as he was pulling it out, he still looked like he was happy as a clam! Who is this guy?!
Kuami quickly handed the film to the angry men, the open camera to Ryan, spoke a few words to them, then turned to us. “Let’s go.”
We pushed our way through the crowd, Kuami smiling at every person he could. Nobody was smiling back.
After we got to the car and locked the doors, Kuami turned the key and we were all wide-eyed, staring out the windows at all of the people surrounding the car and shouting.
As the car slowly eased forward, the crowd parted, and we were soon back on the road. I looked at Kuami, who was not smiling.
“Kuami, why were you smiling the whole time?!” I asked.
I have always remembered what he said next. And even though I already respected him, after this I respected him more.
“It is much harder to be angry at a person who has a smile on their face. It could have gotten really bad back there, so I was smiling to keep their anger from escalating.”
Good grief! This guy must be pretty accustomed to highly tense situations to have the presence of mind to think of that. And fortunately, he did. And we were all fine as a result of it.
So, as you’re going through your day, SMILE! Not just if you’re happy, but even if you would like to alleviate the anger of some criminals you happen to run into at the market.