Sunday, 22 April 2012

Textbook Scam

One problem in Lalibela was the number of kids who wanted to talk to us. We were there during the Saturday market, which may have made it worse. The kids had nothing to do while their parents traded and chatted.

The usual opening lines are “What country you from?” and “What your name?” If you responded (and ignoring them just seemed rude), then you got into a conversation about how long you had been in Lalibela and what your profession is. They wanted to know where you are going and then they walk with you and provide directions.

They start to ask you to test them on the capitals of European cities, which they know well. (They are less good at African capitals). Then they discuss the subjects they are learning in school. I tested a couple of them on Maths and French and they were not bad. After about ten minutes, they go into a quiet and confidential tone of voice and talk about the inadequacies of the local school, the lack of computers, and the need to share textbooks. Finally they get round to asking you to buy a textbook for them.

The first day I just said “Sorry, no” to all of them. The second and last day two kids had been nice and had given us useful directions, including a shortcut past their very basic home – imagine living in a thatched hut and effectively camping all your life, cooking over a wood fire and washing everything in water from a communal tap.

I was feeling in a good and generous mood, so when they said they would take me to the store where I could buy a book I followed them to a shed selling souvenirs. The manager brought out a quite comprehensive Grade 9 and 10 summary textbook, several hundred pages thick, which he wanted 250 birr for. I bargained him down to 200 birr, about 12 dollars.

I was pretty sure that the book would just get recycled and “sold” to the next tourist, and that the people who come to Lalibela in future would be subject to more of the same harassment if I went through with the deal, but I gave in and bought the book. The kid wanted my email address, so when a pen was found I tried to write it in the book. Instantly a scrap of paper was put over the book and I was told it was better to write on the paper. The store manager tried to sell me some more stuff, recognizing me for a gullible tourist. The kid, Tedy, thanked me, blessed me and promised to pray for me and my family.

Later the same day I was pick-pocketed and all the money remaining in my wallet was stolen. So much for Tedy’s prayers! At least the 200 birr went to support a scamming kid and a conniving store owner in Lalibela, rather than an outright thief in downtown Addis.

On the bus back to Lalibela airport a USAid worker told me 44% of all the kids in Ethiopia and underfed, but “only about 10%” are in critical condition. What amazes me is not that the kids will try so hard to scam tourists, but that I can wander around in the market taking photos with $200 US in my pocket and no-one mugs me.

Appendix; Email from Tedy
 Dear John
Greeting from the blessing land of Lalibela.
How are you? And how was every ting going on with you ok.
  I hope every ting is going on with you success!!!
My dear did you back your home at safely have you met your family and friends peacefully it was my prayer you can back your home without any obstacle.
my dear did you remember me I am a boy home I met you here in Lalibela around your hotel on the following day as that time you bay me a book.
My dear I hope you know me very well.
Good memories save your life!!!
All the best!!!
yours truly Ethiopian student tedy

                                                                      Tedy is in orange

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