Wednesday, February 1, 2017



Arthur Kerns

This is an excerpt from my West African travel journal, early June 2000.

June in the West African country of Guinea means rain, especially along the coast. The rain comes like a wall of water, with wind and black clouds that horizontally bend palm trees and snap the hardwoods. These storms are sudden, cling to the ground, and last longer than storms I’ve experienced in the United States. The streets flood and anyone not in a high riding four-wheel drive is at risk. It’s best to stay put and sit out the gale. Unfortunately, this may take a whole day. However, that doesn’t really matter; there’s not much to do here, even on a nice day.
I’m staying at the Hotel Camayenne in the capital city of Conakry. I asked a number of people, Americans and locals, what Camayenne means. I receive mixtures of puzzlement: why would I ask such a question, gee I would not have ever thought of asking that, but I’ll ask around and get back to you with the answer. Since Sabena Air owns the hotel, my Guinean friend suggested that it was the name of the corporate director’s wife. Later, I learned that it is name of the peninsula where we’re located.
The hotel is an island of civilization, very small, very vulnerable. Outside is the real Guinea. Across the street impoverished tradesmen, refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia meander back and forth; hawking singsong fashion tribal masks, statues, and assorted gewgaws. There is an especially decrepit three-story apartment house across from the hotel that I must get a picture of. It encapsulates the town’s atmosphere: mold on the unpainted fa├žade, rusty railings, clothes hanging from broken windows, trash all about the balconies and grounds.

Last night, after a rain, my Guinean friend and I were smoking cigars by the hotel pool overlooking the steel gray ocean. The tide was high and there was a full pale lifeless moon. A moist salty breeze came in from the sea.
A young, thin man approached our table and I assumed he was taking drink orders. He wasn’t. He was a merchant, a trader in tribal masks, a refugee from Sierra Leone, who had conducted business with my friend a few days before. He had a mask in a bag that he selling; the same mask he tried to sell the day before to my friend, unsuccessfully. He was making another pitch in his Leonean English, not Guinean French.

My friend told him, no, he was still not going to purchase the mask. It was too large. It would not fit on his wall with the other masks. It was too expensive. He had inquired of other Sierra Leoneans, creoles, who knew masks who said that the price was too expensive for the quality. The young man countered, but it was his only mask, the only one in his personal inventory. He worked at a stall across from the hotel. This was to be a private deal, between the two of them. 
He continued, “It’s a good price.” He looked into the bag. I could not see the mask. My friend said, “It’s not a good price. It’s not a good quality mask. I don’t want it.”
The young man stared. “You will not give me the money?”
My friend shook his head. “No. We’re talking business now. You do not have a good mask.”

The young man was a soft-spoken fellow, with fine facial features. He had the sad eyes of a recent refugee from a bad place. “Why do you not give me the money,” he asked again. He was barely audible.

My friend sighed, and then proceeded to give him some business advice. The mask is not thin enough. The wood must be thin for a mask to be of value. The wood must be hard, hard wood that was dry before carving. The young man reached into the black bag and felt the unseen mask. He stared at a space in the air between my friend and me. 
“Do you remember the other day, when I was looking at your masks? I was feeling them. Running my hands, my fingers along the sides, feeling the carves, how deep they were, if the carved lines ended into points. None of the masks I felt were of good quality. I know good quality Sierra Leonean masks. I lived in Sierra Leone. I know. Your mask there,” he pointed to the bag, “is of lower quality.” 

The young man squirmed in the chair and spoke quickly and quietly, “This is a good quality.” 
“No, it’s not.”

A long pause. My cigar was good and burning even and cool. The damp breeze, now with the fetid smell of the tropics, made my shirt limp.

“Look,” my friend said. “You want to make a lot of money on this one mask. You want to sell it for 100K guineas, when it is worth only 25, maybe 30. It cost you how much?” 

No answer, except for some shoulder and arm movements. 

“It cost you 10K, right?” 

A big smile, “No. No.” 

“10K or maybe 15K guineas,” my friend continued. “So make a profit of 10K for this one, the sell five more masks, at this good price to the tourists. Sell more at less profit. That adds up. Don’t wait for one big sale that may never come. Sell a lot for a little profit for each one.” 

A long silence. He was staring in the air again. “You will give me the money, yes?” 

“No. I told you, I’m not giving you any money. This is business.”

As my cigar burned down, the exchange continued. The same words, the same business lesson offered, the same resistance. I never saw the mask that was never sold.

We were joined, uninvited, by the young man’s boss, the proprietor of the stall across the street. The new guy had energy, while the young man just sank back into his chair, holding the bag with the mask nobody wanted at any price.

The new guy starts with the buzzwords. “Knowledge is power. Power is life.” 

My friend knew him from the day before. “We’re talking business,” he says, then goes on to repeat the same theme given to the young man, who I doubt wanted to hear it again. After a few minutes, the new guy says, “You are a philosopher.” 

My friend says, “No, I talk business.” He then shifts the topic. “What are you wearing,” he asks the new guy. “Around your neck?” 

It is a large tooth-like brass pendant hanging from his neck on a brown leather string. The new guy says something about it being a totem from his village. My friend says, “Make those things, about five of them, to sell at about 10K a piece. Those Sabena airline flight attendants over there will buy them just like that.” He snaps his finger.

The new guy is speechless, and then mutters, “10K? We sell good masks for 100K.” 

“No,” my friend says, “You try to sell masks at 100K. You can sell many of those pendants to women and make a little on each one and make more money. Build a business.”

The new guy doesn’t like the drift of this conversation and heads back to pitching the masks. My friend, however, is unmovable. My cigar has gone out and I feel raindrops. It’s time to retire for the evening. My headache has come either from the malaria medicine or the conversation. I say goodnight to the three men, none who notice I’m leaving, and pass by the blonde Sabena hostesses. Those pendants would look good on them.
Back in my room with the screeching air-conditioner going full blast, I review the day’s events. Think I’ll leave out Guinean business practices in my daily report to Washington.

Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. A past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, his award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thrillers, The Riviera Contract, The African Contract and The Yemen Contract.
See more in author’s website,


Bev prager said...

Very cool look into a day in the life. Thanks.

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