A humbling experience in France

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By Munhamu Pekeshe

I AM currently in Paris with my friend, a whole PhD from one of the world most prestigious universities.
If human worth were to be measured in academic degrees we are not doing badly.
Between the two of us we bring to France — six university degrees, three of which are from Cambridge University in the UK.
Never mind that the formative years for those lofty achievements were spent in Unyetu, Chivhu and Muchekayaora, Gutu.
France is a country brought to many of our generation via the classroom. Versailles, Voltaire, Bastille, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Parisian resistance were topics that we excelled in, in many a history exam.
Later in life we grew to associate France with fashion, love, soccer and West Africa.
“Je t’aime” we leant to say “I love you”, Princess Diana and lover Dodi perished here, Platini and Zinedine Zidane illuminated soccer fields here.
So an opportunity to visit Paris was always bound to become a journey into the history and culture of France.
Moments after arriving we had a humbling experience that reminded me of a joke I heard a couple of years ago in Harare.
“A town wise guy, Dununu, went back to his village for Christmas.
“Over a beer drink with the village boys he started to show off.
“He asked the village boys if they knew of WhatsApp, DSTV, pizza, jumping castle, Mickey Mouse and so forth.
“Clueless villagers could only shake their heads in disbelief at these earth shattering terms.
“Just as Dununu was beginning to feel triumphant, one village boy asked him if he knew Bhowasi.
“Dununu said no and asked why he should waste his brain knowing Bhowasi. “The village boy broke into a hysterical laugh.
“How can you pretend to be smart when you don’t know Bhowasi who sleeps with your wife when you are in town?”
Arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport we followed the train signs to the station. With minor difficulties we purchased our tickets and, map in hand, we boarded the train to the Paris neighbourhood where we were booked to stay.
Halfway into the journey the train stopped, for what seemed eternity, at Gare du Nord.
Announcements were repeated via intercom in French.
People started leaving the train en masse.
My learned friend and I remained seated, just staring at each other, clueless as to what was happening.
A fellow African who looked very local and West African in his demeanor, and had been sitting facing us, left with the rest after the announcement.
He returned and, from the doorway, motioned us with his hand to come out. He said something in French that drew a blank response from us.
With great difficult he managed to utter two English words, “bomb; train.”
We jumped out of the train, and pointing to the map we showed him our final destination and in sign language he reassured us he would help re-route us.
The Samaritan, his learned Unyetu and Muchekayaora products in tow, moved from platform to platform as he searched for the right route.
At one point, fearing we were being led to the slaughter, we thought of terminating the help.
He seemed to understand and did all he could to reassure us.
Eventually we made it to the right platform and our new friend accompanied us until we were on the final leg of this journey.
With smiles and handshakes we thanked him profoundly from the depths of our hearts.
This was true African hospitality transcending language boundaries.
We forgot to tell him we are Zimbabweans.
We did not ask what he is.
That seems to matter little.
We know he is an African and he knows he helped fellow Africans.
In Paris our enjoyment of this famed culture has been seriously affected by the language barrier.
The city is teeming with history and culture that English and Shona have failed to carry.
From pub to pub, restaurant to restaurant, in shops, at monuments we have missed on many aspects of French culture.
The image of our Samaritan friend keeps bothering me though.
In that evacuation moment at Gare du Nord he looked every bit the literate one.
Clueless and confused, my learned friend and I looked every bit the illiterate lot.
If only we could exchange two of our degrees for fluency in French.
Language is a vehicle to cultural literacy.
France was a major imperial power.
We fought a protracted war against British imperialism and its offshoots.
A greater part of our African brothers especially in West Africa and other parts of the world are French speaking.
Giving our children an opportunity to learn French, Spanish and Chinese is an act of empowerment.
We don’t want them to be clueless Cambridge graduates in a Parisian train.

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