I often tell outsiders that one of the most impressive things about Africa is its diversity -- so many people, so many ancient cultures and languages, so many variations on starchy cornmeal. But one thing that transcends boundaries is the way in which Africans ask for tiny bribes.
It always seems to come down to a sugary drink.
I've written before about the Nairobi parking attendants, wearing jackets stamped with the motto "Corruption is Evil," who happily accept soda money in lieu of the full price of a $2 city parking spot. (A "soda" usually costs about 50 cents.)
I remember arriving in Kinshasa, Congo, for the 2006 elections and having the airport immigration officer tell me, "It's hot and I could use something to drink." That same day some guards outside a government building told me they wanted "quelque chose de sucré" -- something sweet. I thought they said "quelque chose de secret" --
a secret, which seemed kind of weird, so I ignored them. It wasn't until a few minutes later, when the guy
working the elevator asked the same thing, that I understood.
Last night I flew into Lagos, Nigeria, and raced to catch a connecting flight. I was the last passenger to check in, and a nice young kid drove me from the departure gate down the tarmac to the waiting plane. The journey lasted all of 30 seconds, but it was long enough for him to inform me, "I like to drink Coke." I was so relieved at making the flight that I might have thrown him something, if I'd been carrying anything smaller than $100 bills.
There seems to be one place where people have a more oblique way of asking for -- let's not even call them bribes, since many of these people, like my short-time Nigerian bus driver, aren't doing anything but their job. Let's call them micropayments. Anyway, Steve Bloomfield writes that on a recent trip to Sierra Leone, money-changers, porters and other marginally helpful people would leave him with the gentle admonishment, "Don't forget your friend."
Frankly I prefer the straightforward approach -- makes it easier to refuse.