The afternoon of the day The Terminator went hard on the non-compliant teachers was a Friday. At lunchtime, everyone went to the mosque for prayers. I was left at the beach to kill time – there are definitely worse ways to kill time:-). After that we went for lunch at a small roadside place. I had the most delicious fish ever – everyone insisted I should order it and said it was rare and a specialty in Comoros. It was called “poisson rouge” which translates to “red fish.” It was only months later during a French class that I learnt goldfish are poisson rouge. Comoros has rare goldfish that grow to a full size. That fish was delicious and so soft! There was a lovely baby at the restaurant. I could see the fascination in our driver’s eyes. He told me how much he loves babies – and he had many of them. When he had come to pick me from the beach earlier, we had met his wife and one of their small babies. He was such an affectionate father. Later on the streets we had met one of his daughters and he had called her over, hugged her tenderly, exchanged kind words with her and given her some money to go treat herself. Comorians were really warm. We kept on stopping everywhere along the way to give people lifts.
We had some official meetings later in the day. Given that some conservative muslim men don’t shake women’s hands, I had chosen to take the cue on what was appropriate from the interviewee. Most times I would simply bow my head and do a small hand wave. If they reached out for my hand, I would shake their hand too – but I would never stretch out my hand first – just in case they did not shake hands with women. You can imagine my confusion when one of our government interviewees cheekily asked me to kiss him on his cheek after a meeting. It was quite strange. It would have been less strange if he had just initiated the cheek kiss – a lot of Franchophones greet in this way – but asking for it just gave me a very creepy feeling….plus he was sitting down and I was standing – so I had to bend down to give this awkward kiss – with a few men standing behind me. I had already began to get self-conscious about my work clothes in Comoros. In many other countries, my work pants and skirts would be normal, but in Comoros the women generally covered up quite a bit and I instantly felt like my regular work pants were suddenly waaaaaaay too tight – when I compared them to the other women’s dressing.
On our long drive, we passed a lovely lady who came to greet our driver. Instantly from the way they interacted with each other, I knew they were an item. There is a certain energy that’s around two people who have a thing together. I think he noticed I noticed and decided to entertain me and the local consultant with the highlights of his love-life. Yes, this was his girlfriend. He has 2 wives, 2 ex-wives and 8 children in total. I have no idea how anyone manages all these close relationships. All those wives, lovers and babies. When do you sleep?
In Comoros, I also experienced for the first time the faux pas of not knowing how to behave in certain situations in a muslim country. For example, sometimes we would walk into a government building for meetings – find our interviewee in the middle of prayer and my first instinct would be to wait outside till they finished. My Comorian colleagues for the trip however would tell me it’s ok to wait in the room as the person finishes praying. I felt like I was intruding.
There was another thing in Comoros that I never quite figured out. Most of the areas we were visiting were extremely remote and we were using latrines. For some weird reason, all latrines had 3 holes. 2 small ones and a bigger one. What was that all about? One small one and one big one would make sense, but why the three?
Later in the day, the local consultant declared his undying love for me in a long soliloquy. I did what I usually do in such situations – I feigned ignorance and acted like I thought he was telling me all these things in a platonic way.
My salvation was to come later in the day. In the next island we would be in, the hotel I was to stay in was more expensive than the one he was to stay in (he had already been paid his part and that was to cover his accommodation too.) He tried to be cheeky and call our other consultant in Moroni to insist we need to stay in the same hotel so as to be more productive. He was told that this would only happen on his own budget.
When I met the local consultant after he had been told this news, he almost had tears in his eyes. I sympathized with him as much as was polite to do so, but secretly oh secretly I thanked God for saving me from all this awkwardness I had been dealing with in the past few days.