Have you ever wanted to change your race? Not because your skin colour makes you feel inferior, no no no, not that, but because suddenly your race is superior and in a way that seems uncontrollable and looking to cause some trouble. That is what happens when a bunch of drunk, loud French speaking West Africans enter a quiet public bus that you have boarded on an otherwise cool summer day in Saint Petersburg, Russia and, and they are keen to announce their presence.
But before the bus drama on that sunny evening in the summer of 2009, I have to tell a little about how we got there. Summer in Saint Petersburg is the best season ever, of course because of the sun and the holidays but also it is a great escape from the cold of winter and lots of rain in spring. I always tell my friends that if they can, they should visit St. Petersburg at least once in their lives, it is easily the most beautiful city in Russia. But please don’t visit in winter, unless you are from a very cold country yourself. It is grey and very cold in winter plus windy, which makes it even colder.
In winter we always had to check two weather forecasts before going out; the actual and the felt temperature plus the wind speed. They would say it’s -10 degrees but it feels like -15 degrees. As an African student in Russia, you don’t count years like normal people, you count winters; it is a new year when the sun comes out in spring.
On that summer day Robert from Ghana, a fellow student and I had nothing much going on and Alaska, our mutual Russian friend and a photographer, asked us to accompany her to Komarovo (pronounced Kamarova) in the outskirts of Saint Petersburg along the shore of the Baltic Sea. Earlier that month we had attended a ‘students for Christ’ (SFC) camp at Komarovo and Alaska had captured the moments. She was returning the pictures; we were just tagging along.
The public bus for route no. 211 stopped near our hostel just outside the subway station ‘Chernaya Rechka.’ Komarovo is probably like an hour’s drive on a beautiful, winding road that would occasionally sneak in a view of the Baltic Sea and the beach.
After delivering the pictures at the camp in Komarovo, we hit the beach. You wouldn’t want to miss being photographed by a professional like Alaska on such a beautiful day. After our fun filled day we took the bus back.
It was about 6 or 7pm as we headed back but you wouldn’t know; in summer, the days are longer in the North and so you could think it was much earlier. St. Petersburg experiences white nights during the summer solstice, with only one or two hours of darkness.
At one bus stop just after Komarovo, a group of about 20 Africans entered the bus through the front and middle doors. Alaska, Robert and I were standing at the back. They were loud enough to make everyone notice them; they surely disturbed the quietness in that bus. I figured they must have been celebrating a birthday of one of them at the beach. Some had beer in their hands.
It was not the first time that Africans were being loud in a bus; I was often in a company of Africans who just wouldn’t stop talking and laughing loudly in the bus to the disgust of the Russians. The bold Russians would even try to shut us down. For most, you could just see their faces changing colour from all the disgust.
But on this particular day the noise seemed too loud, even I felt bad about it. I figured later that most of the Africans on the bus were from Cameroon, Ivory Coast and some from Congo. The bus got fuller and fuller as we headed on, all seats were taken and almost all standing spaces too.
From the back of the bus the three of us are watching the disruption of the peace happening in the front and in my heart I wish I could distinguish myself from those Africans. Like just announce that we are not with them, in fact we don’t know them, because some Russians were looking at us with those faces.
Then something happened that I would never have imagined seeing in my life in Russia. A drunken Russian man entered the bus from the front door. The conductor who was an elderly lady asked him to pay for transport. He hesitated. For a public bus like that, he either needed to have a card that he could tap or give cash instead. He kept telling the conductor that he will pay in the next stop or he is almost getting out.
The conductor couldn’t have more of that and she asked the driver to stop the bus. She asked the man to pay or get out. The man kept giving excuses for not paying. Too bad for him he was surrounded by some huge West Africans who were eager to reach their hostels. Although I think they were more eager to use their muscles.
The Francophones started telling the Russian dude to get out, and it is like he dared them. ‘Why are you disrespecting the conductor, do you know she is like our mother’ one of the Francophones said to the Russian guy in Russian.
Have you ever seen something flying out of a bus? In this case not something but someone; not just someone, but a Russian being thrown out of a bus in Russia by Africans. That is when you get scared for your race. That guy came flying out of that bus so fast, he didn’t know how to land. Am sure he must have forgotten that he was drunk. As the man struggled to find his footing, the automatic bus doors closed and our journey resumed.
The Francophones laughed and cheered, the conductor was relieved and shocked at the same time, the other Russians in the bus were tense, Alaska seemed to be stuck in an endless wow and then there was me, just wondering how to interpret the events that had just happened before my eyes.
You could cut the tension in that bus with a knife.
You see, to the Russians the man got what he deserved but the agents that delivered that justice was the problem. They seemed not to understand how Africans could have the guts to do that in a public bus. Most of them looked disturbed and as I observed them I just wondered what was going on in their minds.
I remember looking at Alaska and she seemed to be enjoying it. You need to understand, Alaska is one of those Russian ladies who love Africa and Africans so much that she calls herself an African princess. She is now married to a Zambian man.
My personal analysis of Russians’ attitude towards Africans, confirmed by that episode, is summed up as follows.
There are those Russians who don’t like Africans at all, they don’t want anything to do with you, they will not talk to you, just ignore you. Others don’t like Africans and they will show it, by asking silly obvious questions just to provoke you or they will insult or assault you (violently but mostly verbally). Then there are those who are indifferent, they don’t care. To them an African is just any other person, no special treatment and no bad ones either.
Then there is a special kind, those who love Africans and will show it. They will approach you and ask about Africa, specific things, you will find their knowledge of Africa quite advanced. They may have some other African friends. They will probably be able to name some African countries. Some may be naïve but you can sense the genuineness in them. Oh, and they love black American movies, some like hip hop too.
In my class in the university I had all these categories. Alaska falls under the last one.
A Russian being kicked out a bus by Africans was Alaska’s story for like a month. She told her parents the same day and they didn’t like it. She told her friends and everyone in her circles and whenever I was around she insisted on telling the story. She was just over the moon about it. It was like a major historical event had happened in African-Russian relations that would change things forever.
Maybe forever but for me all I wanted was to reach home that evening. I wouldn’t want to miss any other drama in the bus; you could expect anything from drunk, entitled and fired up Africans in a group, but I equally did not want to be seen as being with them.
We arrived well, Russians eager to get out of the bus and the West African corner keeping up with the loudness. As we walked to the hostel with Robert, I just kept wondering how I never identified with those guys as an African, how different we are and how just one evening can change the way you look at your race.