In West Africa not much works unless it’s paid for up-front and in notes, American dollars are best. Most people have a hand-to-mouth existence, they may only have enough money to buy their next meal, even if they’re gainfully employed in a gold mine. Must be hard for them to see all these handsomely-paid western contractors.
For those used to living off the smell of an oily rag, control is key. By determining which little luxury westerners can’t do without they can corner the market (ask Jason’s seamstresses). For many western visitors butter is key, they’ll pretty much pay anything for a small slab on their toast at breakfast.
Four small foil wrapped butter pats would turn up every morning at my breakfast table, along with my toast, sliced pineapple and a huge pot of tea. For this the waitress (Moonlight) would receive around fifty pence a day. Money well spent, she was doing me a service and in return I felt I was helping to keep her family’s head above the bread-line.
Jason’s replacement, a chocolate-smooth American from the West Coast (let’s call him ‘Abe’) understood this arrangement and fitted in perfectly. He had a ready supply of dollars and was soon charming all with his ability to know when a “tip” was necessary, something I was never able to master.
At Abe’s first breakfast we were served by the delightful Moonlight, Abe’s gentle smile and exemplary manners were a great success. She walked to a table full of bricklayers from Manchester where she deposited a round of toast in front of one of them before turning to leave. When she was half way across the room the man leapt to his feet and started to shout, “Where’s my &^%$ butter you $%*^%. Where’s my &^%$ butter you $%*^%.”” He continued shouting the same phrase over and over again, head back and raging at the ceiling, as if the person to blame for the deficit of butter on his plate lived upstairs. His awful friends added to the cacophony, demanding that butter was brought immediately, but Moonlight had disappeared into the kitchen.
As an old hand I had seen this sort of thing before so I carried on eating my buttered toast and drinking my tea, attempting and failing to engage Abe in conversation about the day’s work. To everybody’s relief an armed guard arrived and poked the protesting bricklayer in his substantial stomach with an AK 47.
When they were removed (at gunpoint) Abe turned to look at me, eyes wide in astonishment. I chewed my last bit of buttered toast and took a sip of tea, waiting for the navvies’ voices to dissipate so I did not have to raise my voice. “You’ll be like that soon,” I said, like a soothsayer prophesying doom. Abe laughed at what he took to be my witticism.
Six weeks later we (Abe and myself) decided to take leave and we prepared to travel down to the airport on the main service bus. Abe wanted to fax his girlfriend the itinerary for his journey home, he handed the paper to reception and then returned to his room so he could pack. We met up for a final lunch together and I asked about his route home and how long he would take.
“Dunno,” he commented, “But I got it all written down, it’s in reception.” A slight concerned look entered his face and he rushed off.
My own lunch was virtually finished so I shoved a large tip for Moonlight under a plate and followed in Abe’s footsteps. Near reception I became aware of raised voices, somebody was shouting at the man who was in charge of the fax machine. On entering the small office I found Abe leaning across the counter and bellowing, “Where’s my *&^%&^^% fax, *&^^R%.” The man looked startled, he was searching frantically through piles of paper behind the desk.
“Abe,” I said soothingly and put my hand in my pocket to retrieve a few dollars.
Abe turned on me. “Don’t give him any more, I payed this %$£%£^ enough already, I just want him to do something without having his palm greased.” Then he turned back to the man and banged on the desk. “Where’s my *&^%&^^% fax, *&^^R%.”
The situation was eventually defused when the receptionist retreated into the back room and reappeared with Abe’s itinerary clutched in his hand. Abe grabbed the sheets, “Thanks,” he said, hissing the last syllable like a leaky kettle.
As he pushed past me to exit the room he probably remembered my prophetic utterance at our first ever breakfast together. “Don’t,” he shouted at me. “Just don’t.”