You may well wonder why I would bother telling you that a 500ml sachet of water costs about 5p, but it helps to illustrate some typical daily economic issues, particularly for many African women, so let me tell you about Cynthia.
She lives with her young son in Kumasi, a city in western Ghana and has a room in a building seemingly populated almost entirely by other women without any visible partners. Lets just say the building won’t be appearing in next months Homes & Gardens magazine to save a detailed description of its appearance. Cynthia sits on the corner opposite selling the aforementioned sachets and, along with other neighbours with their own specialities: phone cards; grilled plantains and fufu (a largely tasteless maize based splodge which can come with a variety of spicy sauces in which float miscellaneous animal parts); they are there, with a few exceptions for vital chores, six days a week, twelve hours a day. Whilst us white folks may be guzzling down water in 1.5L bottles at a great rate in the sauna like conditions, the locals will happily go all day barely touching the stuff, so it’s not quite the obvious marketing strategy you would imagine, besides, there are tens of thousands of Cynthias in West Africa, dodging traffic at the lights or waiting patiently at transport hubs to sell to passing occupants. These others always have stiff competition, whereas, by staking a claim to a patch of pavement you have to go to the next corner to find a competitor. Trade is hardly brisk and much of the day is spent nattering to friends and neighbours, It’s hard to believe she sells more than few dozen in a day so even with an optimistic view of the profit margins, £1 would be a good days earnings.
When you live life on these margins the smallest change in your circumstances can have dramatic effects, a minor illness or price rises, force you to take the kind of decisions most of us never have to encounter. I could have picked any number of people or products but this was a good a one as any to show that poverty in Africa for millions of people is far less to do with headline grabbing famines than the simple struggle to meet even, what we would class, the most basic of needs. It also explains why finding change is a constant struggle for tourists, after all what use is a note worth £5 when it would take weeks to save that amount, the majority of people conduct their transactions in coins worth pennies. Hence it is actually often difficult to dish out money to those who deserve it, unless you can afford to hand out the equivalent of £5 notes to all and sundry.
Little needs to be said of the dangers facing solo women travellers so I would like you to spare a thought for us men when confronted by the female of the species. Admittedly we are unlikely to be in much physical danger unless you think sex without a condom in Africa is a jolly clever idea but Darwinian selection has a neat way of weeding out such people.
You don’t have to get very far into a conversation with an African woman before they ask if you are married or have children. There are 3 routes the conversation will then tend to take: if they are married, they will be amazed that you are not already wed and take pity on you, especially if you are an old git like me; she will drop continuous hints around the subject, obliging you to demonstrate what your level of interest is; or finally, her hands will start wandering over whatever bit of your flesh is available to feel, by which time you need to reciprocate or do a runner. Unless you are happy to take up the reciprocal option and I would read on first before you do, it is a bit of a pity really as it limits much casual friendship.
Certainly, once they have realised I was not going to be their knight in shining armour, many goodbyes have been graceless affairs with no thanks for my parting gifts as a thank you for sparing the time for an insight into their lives. There is no doubt that the lure of money and visas to the promised land is a large part of some women’s motivation for such interaction with men and sometimes, that may be all of it, but for many it should not be dismissed as simply a mercenary act. More often than not the woman will turn out to have a child and I do honestly think that giving the child a reasonable life with prospects and some stability for themselves takes greater precedence than the dream of being able to splash out on dresses and shoes. You may well find a kind and devoted woman who will do her utmost to care for you, personally having someone to do the cooking, dishes and washing is at the bottom of any wife requirements list. Of course, if you were the unscrupulous sort and were prepared to string women along, giving vague notions of commitment you could probably shag your way around Africa’s single mums to your heart’s content- sorry to disappoint you all but I do have the odd shred of human decency left.
Decency was not entirely what I had on my mind when I met Mariette though. After having built up a soft spot for Cote d’Ivoire’s football team during the Africa Cup of Nations, after all, the country has had a bit of a hard time recently and a morale boosting win was only deserved I felt, I did that unheard of act and went to a bar for some big screen sports action where I encountered the above mentioned lady. I have never expended so much emotional energy rooting for a football team in my life, OK I have never actually expended any emotional energy on football, but it was a tense match. I will spare you my attempts at match analysis as it would be a bit like expecting Wayne Rooney to expound on the details of, say eschatological immanence in the heterodox communities of the 3rd century Levant, suffice to say they lost on penalties to Zambia.
Cote d’Ivoire may not have scored but I did, actually that doesn’t quite do justice to the process as I didn’t really need to take much of an active role, all I had to do was be white and have a wallet, which after some practice I seem to have mastered. Mariette is what in local slang is referred to as a mousso (male equivalents exist, especially in Gambia but I don’t know if there is a name for them), whereby we enter into a largely unspoken agreement: we travel together for a few days, I pay the bills, treat her to some stuff and I get a free guide and some fringe benefits which are best not detailed here. Given the modest cost of things here it works out at a good deal, a lot less than doing the gentlemanly thing a wining and dining a lady back home. A plate of local food sets you back about 70p and she didn’t like European muck. Of course you could say this is tantamount to prostitution, but whores dont take you back to meet the family and friends, so it’s difficult to see that much shame is seen in it and what the hell, try anything once, except pedophilia and voting Conservative of course. I did have to resist the charms of a 19 year old in Benin who tried to chat me up, but that was really one step too close to kiddy fiddling at my age.
Mariette had got a friend to do a compilation cd for me which was put on in the family living room, which also doubles as a dining room and kids bedroom, within seconds we were all up and dancing, three generations of family, from mum to the wildly leaping four year old grandson, propelled by raw enthusiasm and the chocolate I had brought round. Teenagers throwing shapes with the latest dance steps, me obviously impressing everyone with some slick granddad moves. This was not some pleasant, middle class world music meanderings or even cheesy afro pop but an absolutely banging sub genre of coupé decalé, a hard, fast and percussive Ivorian club music. It was a priceless moment, if somewhat tarnished by later events.
On the eve of her returning home I was shown a text from her brother, saying that mum had been admitted to hospital and was in need of an operation costing about £400. Despite the certain quantity of fun we had been having I was under no illusions to her underlying motivations so was always aware that there was the potential for something dubious. Ignoring the coincidence of the timing I struggled to believe her, for the simple reason I have had almost the same call myself concerning my own mother, Tiffy and the consequences were so awful to contemplate that I know it infects every waking minute. You cannot disguise the terrible premonitions it invokes and I just didn’t notice a single change in her character. Can some African women be so different? I doubt it and it was only reinforced on our parting when she couldn’t even make eye contact when I said, “please keep me informed of your mother’s condition”. Could I really be such a callous bastard in not believing her? The bottom line was that I simply had no way of coming up with that kind of money, if it had been £100 I could have said it was better to be conned than face the consequences of it being true. Quelle surprise I thought when I texted her 2 days later asking after her mum, by the grace of god (her words) she had somehow avoided the need of the operation and had made some improvement. Of course she denies any subterfuge and maybe her natural behaviour was just so alien to me I have misjudged her. I will just have to live with that judgement and I await the possibility of Satan’s hearty greetings at the gates of hell.
Those men amongst you who may be tempted by the prospect of a Club 18-30 holiday with the local ladies should also be aware that these are generally far more religious countries than much of Europe and the casual sex after a few too many alco pops which is endemic in Britain is not taken quite so lightly. That’s just for the Christain areas and as for the Muslim ones, I haven’t noticed even the slightest tendency for knickers to be dropped at the first sign of a bulging, white man’s wallet.
So, to sum up my advice on women to male travellers it is this: if you are looking for a devoted wife or a prostitute you can almost certainly get a quality deal at rock bottom prices, anything in between is likely to be emotionally and financially problematic.