Taxi fare in Lesotho is fairly standard, compared to Niger where one could bargain a price. Most Basotho know the cost it takes to get from one place to the next without the fear that the conductor – the person who handles money and door operation – is trying to get a little extra.
However, as a white person, there are a few times when a conductor tries to squeeze a few extra Maluti out of me. It helps that there is a chart of the prices posted in each car so I can point to that, but I can also use my little bit of Sesotho to explain that I am not just some lahuoa. I know these ropes. Once a conductor tried to tell me I needed to pay more because it was a holiday, but I knew better. I argued and argued with him until I finally agreed to pay one extra rand. When I told my host sister this, she told me to just get out of the car the next time.
On my way back from vacation, I was faced with another greedy conductor. I had my large backpack – overstuffed with items I must have for holiday – but it was sitting between the driver bench and the first row on a small ledge designated for bigger items. I didn’t think much about it because I often toss my bag there and have no problems. I was sitting in the front between the driver and one of my students, zoned out to my music and the made-up world in my head. When it was time to give the conductor money, I handed him a 50 note and he quickly gave me back 20. It is common for the conductor to not give exact change right away. He may not have it and is collecting the fares of other passengers, but he will usually hand it over without me having to say anything.
But, the closer we got to my stop, I started to panic about the inevitable confrontation. I could see the bills in his hand; he was trying to cheat me.
“Ke kopa change.” I demanded he hand over the rest of my change.
“No. Bag. Too big.”
He had decided that my bag took up too much room and he should charge me for it. Nope.
“Uhuhuhuh.” I screamed at him. “Tsotsi, Ntate. Tsotsi.” I called him a thief.
He said he was not a thief and that my bag deserved a charge, but I wasn’t going to let him win. “Uhuhuhuh. Tsotsi. Tsotsi.”
The rest of the 15-passenger van joined in. “Tsotsi! Tsotsi!” I had won their respect and they were going to help me get my money back. Even the driver giggled and repeated the Sesotho word for thief.
Eventually, he relented and handed me 10 rand, one less than I deserved but I decided to end my victory there. And it was a victory.
If I was in America, I would have called that extra 10 rand a loss and shrugged it off. Here, though, I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of because of stereotypes associated with the color my skin. I take the same transportation as the Basotho, eat the same food and speak the same language so I am going to pay the same price.
From the outside it seems like I was the greedy white person, but the other passengers appreciated that I stood up for myself. That I fought the conductor the way they would. For all intense and purposes, I was a Masotho.
As the car let me out, I thanked the driver and turned to the conductor, “Ke tseba. Ke Masotho.”
I know. I am a Masotho.