Life was usually safe in what used to be Belgian Congo, now République Démocratique du Congo. The garden gates were kept open unless the dogs were free to run in the yard. We did not watch who was coming into our yard, since it was common for Joseph, our servant, to have somebody to drop in for a short visit while passing by… and have a tea when we were not home.
It was a steaming hot bright afternoon on New Years’ day when a Congolese man showed up at our front door, holding cut flowers in his hand, wishing us the traditional Bonanna, their way of wishing us Bonne Année, for what one could translate as Good Year to You.
Thanking him for his good wishes, I gave him a matabish , a tip, and off he went to another house, keeping the flowers.
The complete event was done in such a natural and innocent manner that it took me about 30 minutes to realise what had happened: It was steaming hot as usual and those gerberas looked familiar, healthy and fresh in the black man’s hand, no water, and no vase.
Sure enough, the gerberas in my brick flower beds along the veranda were all gone. The well wisher had cut my own flowers to make sure the flowers looked fresh, commending a good tip. My dismay ended up with a good laugh at the Congolese’s incredible creativity at catching us off guard.
On another New Year’s day and in another part of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) a Congolese came at the door of a friend, holding an absolutely beautiful healthy plant in a piece of burlap. Enchanted, the lady said to my husband’s sister who had just dropped by:
“Look at the plant! Beautiful! It will match the one I have,”…
and happily gave the man a generous matabish. Wanting to plant it immediately the lady discovered the man had dug out her own plant….
When the prank was good natured, it was impossible to get angry at the clever way the blacks enjoyed pulling our leg. By understanding their language, we knew they were laughing as much as we did. The Congolese had an uncanny way of pegging us: When the mindele were wise to their tricks, they were labeled mayele, smart, when they did not get it, the mindele were classified as zoba, stupid.
Although we were all kicked out of Congo many years ago, I still have fond memories and laugh at the tricks these black men would play on us.
Wishing you Bonanna and may 2012 be a wonderful year to you!
And now, let us learn some Lingala:
– nayo, to you, is singular, and na bino, to you all, is plural
– Mundele is one white man or woman and Mindele many whites, is plural
– Matabish , tip, gratuity
– Mayele, smart
– Zoba, stupid