Be careful what you wish for

The morning after the ceremony a deputation of elders arrived at the hut. I dressed quickly and staggered out to meet them. Their leader stepped forward and delivered a long and impassioned speech. When he’d finished, Kofi (not his real name*) translated (* many of those described here have pseudonym’s to protect their identities).

“Now you ngútsu mtogbé (tribal champion), we have job for you. You bankrobber.”


“You muss rob bank ..”

My head swam and only partly with the hangover from the ‘medicine’ I’d drunk the night before.

“You’re kidding!”

Kofi held up his hand to stop me and stepped forward to murmur in my ear, “You agree to ceremony. You agree to job.”

“Yes, but I thought it was just a ceremonial title. This is crazy!”

Kofi shrugged but looked serious.

“I need to think. I need coffee!”

Kofi turned to the deputation and spoke briefly. They bowed and left.

“What did you say?”

“I told dem you think how to do it.”

“Thanks a lot!”

I went to grab my mug, the tin of instant and bottle of Scotch, then headed for the kitchen area to find some hot water. Sat under the fig tree I alternately sipped the brew and slugged the booze. How the hell did I get into this?

I’d come to this village as an anthropology graduate, hoping to do more than simply study these people, though with no idea what. So when, after they’d got used to me hanging round and asking idiot questions, the offer of a form of initiation had been made, I accepted immediately. Participant observation was a valid process still and seemed the best way to get some deeper insight into this society and to discover how I might be of use to them. That seemed to have paid off big time. My head hurt.

Unpacking this request, nay commission, I reasoned that I’d sleepwalked into a cargo cult dream. The local TV, which my hosts got to watch occasionally when they worked in the city, showed endless repeats of old Westerns and gangster movies that the national service bought cheap from other broadcasters. In these the only way anyone got rich quick was by robbing a bank; the guys who did the robbing were white; I was white; ergo, to help them I had to rob a bank. Simple. Oh, shit.

The one thing I had on my side was time. Africa time, especially in rural areas, is a flexible thing, as with country-dwellers all over the globe. So my options were either to walk away and leave them disabused about the trust they could place in whites – not altogether a bad idea – or stall and hope my new friends would come to recognise the impossibility of their demand, or to come up with a cunning plan that didn’t involve me ending up in gaol or shot dead. A more immediate problem was: how exactly was I going to write this up in my study notes?