Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wooden Mallets and wax cloth

I’m touring coastal West Africa at the moment, in the company of a colleague who is over here to promote a new range of products. Over the last 5 decades my employers have diversified from their core business of tea to include a number of rather unrelated industries – so much so that its at times difficult to understand the logic. I’ve come to the conclusion that the gent I refer to as the ‘chairman’ as akin to a gardener who prepares the ground and plants to sit back and watch the crop grow ; there really is no other way to look at it.

From Burkina I flew to Togo where I received a typical Togolese welcome at the airport starting from the Immigration booth, twice, customs, and the final security check on the way out – the demand for a ‘cadeau’, French for a gift and a euphemism for a bribe. Now, I’m not averse to demonstrating my gratitude to someone who steps in to help me getting through the tangle of bureaucracy and red tape that snarls up one for no apparent reason for hours on end but blatant attempts to part me from my hard earned money really annoys me especially when its done in the course of someone just doing his job and me in the right too.

I recollect one memorable occasion in Sierra Leone when a customs inspector opened play with something to the effect that if he was to discharge his duties I might most likely miss my flight and therefore it was in my best interest to oil his already greasy palm. My response was that I had immense respect for him and those in his profession and that I would be the last person on earth to stand between him and the discharge of his responsibilities. He blinked a few times before waving me to take a seat, which I did, making myself comfortable and pulling put a book to read. Nonchalantly browsing the pages I could see from the corner of my eye my friend casting glances at me as my suitcase remained unopened in front of him. This little act played on for about 10mts, me immersed in my book, draped in a plastic chair, the inspector hitting on other would be passengers with a rather surprisingly high rate of success to I must say which made me wonder what the heck people had in their bags anyway! Eventually he tired off me and calling me over waved me through. I rewarded him with a bright smile and a Reynolds Ball point pen – standard stock I carry with me which I use in lieu of money on such trips; after all this was not going to be my last trip to Sierra Leone and Freetown!

But I digress….

After the polite professional efficiency of Burkina Faso border crossing points I’m annoyed when such blatant attempts are made to solicit a bribe. But the sad fact is that the majority of African’s live in dire circumstances, and people are desperately poor. Many government employees are badly paid, work under terrible conditions and soliciting a ‘donation’ for many is a means of survival.
I smiled my way through all these efforts, my stock answer to such ‘touches’ is to say that if only I knew he was gonna be there I would have brought him something, that , sadly, as a paid employee myself, money was something I had little of in hand…
This trip had something new in store for me, entry into Benin, a country I was yet to visit on a formal basis. Yes, I did choose my words carefully there; for this was not my ‘first’ visit to Benin in reality. That was back in April when I happened to cross the border from Togo at a loosely guarded point for a spot of lunch. I had been visiting this isolated village called Bassamba to see their fortress styled houses and did a quickie for a bite to eat one afternoon.

Benin was not quite what I expected it to be, my experience with the place limited so far to scam mails and what little I had read in my guide book. All in all it was not too bad at all. The primary and cheapest way of getting around the city is on a motor cycle taxi, of which the city boasts 1000’s it seemed. Fast and rather daringly ride it tends to be indeed. While the first couple of days was spent in the relatively sterile environment of a staid hotel – its redeeming feature being a lovely pool – the kind of accommodation preferred by my colleague I was eager to check out Cotonou's “Hotel California” – Alex’s Hotel. Its location is not for the faint hearted, on the fringes of the huge and apparently abandoned railway yard, in close proximity to a bar district, it’s a place bursting with life!

It was here that I was fortunate to come across a little alleyway where sitting upon the ground a gang of men pounded away at fine “Bazen: cloth, beating into the fabric the last coating of wax which gives the material its peculiar stiffness and shine.

These men are brawny souls with arms that a body builder would be envious of and no surprise given the weight of the mallet they use to pound the cloth – at least 4kg if not more! They work in relative silence, all one can hear is the rhythmic ‘thunk thunk’ as the mallet hits the wooden tree truck upon which they have placed the length of cloth. Sweat glisten their torso’s as they pound away, two to a cloth, swinging away with one had as they maneuver the material around.


  1. Ugh, the cadeaux!

    I used to stick to my guns about handing those out too, but I broke once. My driver was double parked somewhere along Rue Georges Pompidou in Dakar. I was getting a key cut someplace or some rubbish and when I came out of the store he was getting harassed by a cop. Usually I managed to escape by sputtering out a few Wolof phrases but this guy wasn't having any of it. I was late for a meeting too so I slipped him some CFA, slunk into the car and went on my way a bit disappointed in myself but far less frazzled for sure. It's the persistent harassment that I couldn't deal with that day.

    It's unfortunate though because they really do earn a pittance for what they do, I don't think they see themselves as being corrupt!

  2. @ Rasti: I did that this afternoon and had to cool my heels on the Togo Ghana border for almost 30mts!