On day three met the President, a rather unprepossessing man drawn against his reputation, but pleasant enough. I asked Hassan if we should ask about his brother but he gave me one of those looks. The African delegation kept a very close eye on their miscreant delegate and an award was made. Lunch was served, and it wasn’t goat. It was actually rather good. Networking events were held, I made a speech and it was well received, it seemed altogether a reasonably good day.
The previous day after our lunch I had aimed to retire to my room and do some work preparing for what was quite a big day for us , stuff to do, stuff say, people to meet, and our key donor was there and needed to be engaged with.
Getting to my room to prepare however was something of a challenge. If you went out you had to leave a key at reception. First they demanded that you did, second they catered for nay sayers by putting the key on what looked like a small canon ball made of gold covered lead. No way that was getting to be carried around. So naturally I went up the receptionist. Different human same demeanour but awake which was an improvement. I asked for number 5 floor 5. If you have read thus far you know what’s coming.
Up the non air conditioned stairs, much sweat, wrong key, loud Anglo-Saxon comment.
Downstairs, change key, upstairs same result.
Downstairs, more Anglo-Saxon, change of key, upstairs, more sweat and finally…….
The next morning. We had a brief meeting after breakfast with some people we had met and needed to know more about. It was a really good meeting and felt as if it was validating the trip. Indeed it did as we worked with them later that year and we both seemed to be solving long held problems the other had. Synchronicity, symbiosis, whatever, it was ideal and an outcome that really worked for the people we were both seeking to benefit. I’m a bit ambivalent about conferences like that but when that happens it does make it worthwhile and I doubt we would have met any other way. Sometimes accidents like that can prove to be very fruitful.
Buoyed with optimism I went back to the hotel got the key…up the stairs and it was the wrong key, naturally, why had I believed it would be any different.
I came down to find a beautiful African woman in a long highly colourful West African dress that absolutely complemented her. It transpired she was Senegalese and she was asking for her key. Feeling very British and inadequate I said “ Be careful for what you ask for you have no idea what you will get.”
She smiled and took her key – Number 5
“ So you are there mysterious other number 5 !”
A glorious smile and she said in perfect English “ Oh I’ve got this covered, watch.” She pointed to where the keys were.
“ So seven floors, seven rooms each. Mine is number 5 yours is number 5 yes ?” I nodded .
“ So they have the same numbers for each floor, it is idiotic and they are lazy so they don’t always put the key where it should be. So you have a one in 49 chance of getting the right key and a one in 7 if you remember the right number. I have two strategies because I have been here before, first I always book the first floor …..and then there is the other strategy.” She turned her key round, she had drawn a perfect love heart in indelible ink on the Gold. Wide eyed yet coy she said “ For some reason they always seem to get my key right.”
“I can’t possibly imagine why” I said and she had the grace to lower her eyelashes and giggle. I met her later in the conference and she was as delightful to talk to as she was to meet, a diplomat and one I was delighted to meet again when I gave a speech in Senegal a year later. “ Ello Mr Number 5.” It could only be Marie .
Later that day Hassan and I met up with George, a Kenyan scientist for whom who I had a great deal of time. Highly intelligent and truthful in an agenda that was not known for totally embracing the truth, he had become as good a friend as one can be with the distance between Edinburgh and Nairobi.
“ Hey I have Dutch mate who says there is a brilliant food and jazz place down town” he said ” shall we go there tonight ?” Reminiscing on our fish supper Hassan and I readily agreed. George said he would be bringing an Italian friend he had also met at the conference.
At 7pm they came to the hotel and we ordered a taxi.
A quarter of an hour later it arrived.
In French – George’s French was far better than mine we questioned the taxi driver’s request.
” Mister I need money for fuel.”
“ But you are a taxi driver, taxis need fuel, you get fuel before you look for rides, no ?”
“ No.” Ok, cultural dislocation, move on.
So we reluctantly gave him some money for fuel because we could see the petrol station was just 100 metres away and he did promise to come back.
George, ever logical was about to ask “ will you then deduct the cost of the fuel from the cost of the ride ?” When I said “George just think of good jazz good food and beer, it is not a lot of money.” He said “ Yeah but it’s the principle, I’m an African he’s an African I can say this.” Hassan agreed. He didn’t ask in the end.
West Africa is where Old Peugeots 405s come to die, even then they are resurrected and live, in a zombie state, on the streets. This was one such 405.
The driver gesticulated frantically to us from the petrol station
“ No starter motor needs to push.”
“ Seriously?” said George.
“ No push, no go.” We pushed. It chugged into life.
As we got in the suspension met the rest of the body work and we grounded every bump we went over.
I wondered why he started to turn the steering wheel when we were going in a straight line and then about 10 seconds later the corner came up, which he negotiated smoothly if you could ignore the screeching of the collapsed suspension and body frame on the tyres. There was so much give in the steering he had to anticipate when he would need it and get the thing moving roughly in time with the next major corner. Criticise if you like but it was a miracle of forward thinking.
Finally we arrived. We paid and moved towards the jazz club / restaurant. The driver gesticulated again
“ Mister TIP”
George paused, reached into his pocket then came way with nothing and gestured for him to come closer and said conspiratorially into his ear “ My tip is…… get a new car.”
The food was excellent, the jazz, all played by local guys and a female singer was brilliant, company of both our immediate friends and others from the conference that we found, was great and we stayed until the early hours. Then back to the hotel with a much better taxi and the right key. ( If you ever go to the Hotel Parfait ask for the key with the scratched saltire on it…….)