There are lots of things about being an hotelier in Africa that I have never told you about. This is mainly because they are too difficult and too close to sensitive areas about colonialism and white rule etc. The longer one remains in Africa the less superficially sensitive one becomes to these things. Tourists on the other hand are often hyper sensitive, especially since they may never have spoken to a black person before. They sometimes feel as if they have to expiate the sins of their ancestors. This is something keenly felt and understood by Africans, who sometimes take advantage of it. Just take the business of the ‘guides’, the Malian men who travel with the tourists. They often behave as if they ‘own’ their clients.
Sometimes, when a new couple, or group, arrives at the hotel, I ask them if they are going to eat at the hotel. (It is essential to know for logistics purposes). If the couple seems friendly I might venture to suggest that they could have a cocktail on the terrace at sunset. But very often the couple will look bewildered and say: ’we will have to speak to our guide X he is the one who makes the plans”. Once a young English girl, travelling in grand style with an entourage of guide and driver, said ‘yes, that sounds lovely; I will have a drink at sunset!’ But later she told me: I am sorry, my guide told me we have to go in to town!’ The same guide glared at me and later complained that I was interfering with his business!
Very often a young couple is travelling together with a guide. I now make it policy to find out who is paying for the dinner. If the couple is on full board the guide pays and he decides where and how they eat. To simplify things I have then decided to ask the guide if he eats with his clients or not. More often than not he will inform me that he eats with his clients, whether they are a young honey moon couple or not. But this is not my problem. If the couple pays themselves however, I have made it my business to find out whether they eat with their guide or not. If they say yes, than we will make a place for the guide, if they say they prefer to eat on their own then we will make up a table for two. The guide will get something to eat anyway, with the drivers and the hotel staff. This may seem petty, but it causes an enormous amount of problems.
I am afraid I don’t sometimes understand my clients. But I do know what I want myself. I know for an absolute fact that if I were on a holiday with my boyfriend or my husband I would want to have dinner with him on my own. To have to make conversation with the guide, whom I see all day anyway, would make me very annoyed,however charming the guide. But who am I to know what other people want?
Let me just add one practical detail: there is the question of money too. When one person comes, he or she will pay for one person’s dinner only. Meanwhile we are supposed to fork out for the dinner of their guide too, for free, if the client so wishes! This seems to be the Mali tradition; and I don’t really mind. The drivers normally get African style food next door. Frankly we cannot be responsible for giving three course meals for free for both driver and guide! But today there was a French woman her with her son. I asked her whether she would like her guide to eat at her table. She looked at me as if I were some sort of promoter of latter day Apartheid and said, grandly and pointedly, that OF COURSE she always ate with both her driver and her guide! I said that if that was the case that was fine but she would have to pay for her driver’s lunch. (I simply cannot give two toubab three course meals for free!) Once finances came in to it, she presumably decided apartheid was OK and she told me that the chauffeur could eat with the other chauffeurs and eating with her guide only was OK!
All of this is a minefield of potential misunderstandings. There is no African concept of privacy; hence no understanding that couples may wish to be alone. And not only couples, but individuals too. The sight of someone sitting alone at a table, reading a book, say, provokes profound pity in an African, who will immediately feel compelled to lighten this individual’s evident distress by going over to chat with him. Just take the case of this Mexican Lawyer above. He was really not very sociable. He had need of solitude. I know this because I sussed it out the night before and decide not to invite him to dine with me. He actually did have the nerve to tell his guide he wanted to dine alone. But in the morning the guide just couldn’t help himself. Although he realized that the man wanted to be alone, he came along and placed a chair at a ‘respectful’ distance away! This was of course even more of a trial for the poor Mexican who only wanted to be left in peace…