Hello, I say.
Hello, she says.
What’s your name?
Her name is Ophelia. She says this and then gives me the look — the look I get from so many of the Africans, the look I initially misread but, now, think (foolishly) I understand. The same silly “understanding” that fuels imperialists and missionaries, I suppose. The look: It’s a hard look. A tough look. A facade. A suspicion, rightfully so, directed towards the pale man with the hairy arms and straight hair standing in their village.
Obroni, it seems, from what I can tell, has come to mean, generally, foreigner, but more specifically, white man. Although sometimes you’ll simply be called the more lucid “white face” or “white man.” Obroni — according to Wikipedia, which we know is never wrong — originally meant trickster or “one who frustrates” or “one who cannot be trusted.” One who frustrates! I burst out laughing when I read that. It’s so innocent. So pure a sentiment towards the outsider. He who tricks us. Yes, that makes sense.
So Ophelia gives me the look — a look I imagine evolved over centuries of outsiders arriving to trick them. And even now, maybe, we, too, are tricking them with these ereaders. Maybe tricking ourselves. It’s possible.
But I’ve learned quickly to diffuse the sense of trickery with the absurd. Strange faces. Goofiness. Lick your nose with your tongue (What, you can’t do that?). Lay yourself transparent by shedding every ounce of cool you may have — transcending obroniness by playing the part of … fool. It’s the quickest way to crack the shell, to bring down the defenses. Such a moron couldn’t possibly be full of tricks.
And so I make faces, stare weirdly, cross-eyed, guppy-mouthed, breaking in to a big smile at the end, and she blushes and giggles and for an instant her stone-wall falls and she is just a young woman.
I manage a photo as she laughs falling back, snapping up to attention an instant later, the wall rebuilt, a hard crease in her brow, suspicious — maybe slightly less so now — and then runs off, back to her desk to continue reading, as a group of children just outside of the frame jostle for position to be photographed next.