Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adventures in the GSM Village

Let me make something clear from the start – I hate cell phones. Having been within earshot of too many inane conversations about grocery lists, adolescent angst and the location of the callers (“Where are you right now? Ohmygod, you’re like sooo close to me!”), I vowed to resist buying one until the very last payphone became extinct. In Nigeria, the landline is the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the careers of the cast of Friends. I’ve seen telephone lines left in disrepair so long that their sagging corpses have long since been covered with vegetation. Lines that have accidentally been cut by a passing motorist have been thoughtfully repaired by the culprit tying them up in a bow worthy of a drunken sailor. So, I had no choice – I had to join, ugh, Cell Phone Nation.

But buying anything in Nigeria is a minefield for a batauri, the Hausa term for a white person. The mere sight of the sun reflecting off a Canadian Caucasian instantly drives the negotiated price up by 25%. So, for what will likely be my most expensive purchase in Nigeria, I knew I needed help. Enter Christopher Chikwem, VSO’s Logistics Assistant, who rightfully deserves the additional title of Master Negotiator. In stature and nature, he is Nigeria’s Danny DeVito, a fast-talking dealmaker who waves the toothpick in his mouth at market sellers like a disapproving finger. I knew I was in good hands from the start.

“We should avoid the GSM Village”, he said as we weaved through the mid-day Abuja traffic, “They will sell you used phones packaged as new”. Though I had no idea of where or what the GSM Village was, I nodded my head in agreement, letting out a grunt of disapproval of the terrible Village People who lived there, presumably surviving on a diet of unwary consumers. As we pulled into a strip mall of cell phone merchants, I wondered whether I was still going to be the main course for the day.

Labelling anything as both an art and a science is woefully cliché, but negotiating in Nigeria deserves both designations in equal measure. The science is in the simple calculation of the numbers involved – how much one is willing to pay versus the listed price either on display or in the seller’s opening position. Nothing terribly sexy about that. But for a negotiator like Christopher, the play is the thing. Even though I spoke not a word of Hausa, my appreciation of his performance was undiminished by my lack of understanding. I watched as he shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and sighed heavily at the lack of movement by the cell phone sellers. In the exchanges that were in English, I heard him speak of his duty to VSO and his promise…no, make that his vow…. to me to get the very best price possible.

Initial negotiations didn’t go well, and I was the reason. Every shopkeeper we approached practically danced in anticipation of our arrival. Despite his best efforts, Christopher could not get the price he wanted. “You are costing us money,” he said, shaking his head in equal parts exasperation and amusement, as though he now had a personal stake in the negotiations, and maybe he had. I briefly considered offering to stay behind in the car, provided he left the windows open a crack, but I think agreeing to that would have been tantamount to admitting defeat for someone like Christopher. I was to be his greatest challenge, and I was coming with him whether I liked it or not. After one last failed negotiation, Christopher squinted at me and declared, “We’re going to the GSM Village”. On this point, there would be no negotiation.

My attempts at conversation on the trip to the Village were politely rebuffed by Christopher who clearly had only one thing on his mind. As we pulled into the parking lot of the Village, hawkers descended on the car with their strips of cell phone cards and personal grooming kits. I tried not to take the latter as a comment on my appearance. “Take your bag with you,” Christopher said, as he carefully locked the vehicle and strode off in the direction of the bridge. I struggled to keep up, weighed down with my backpack and starting to sway with what I was sure were the early signs of heatstroke. As we approached the bridge, I could see why Christopher made the Village his last resort.

Camped out under the bridge like so many trolls were stalls of cell phone sellers as far as the eye could see. “These are all for cell phones?” I asked. Christopher grunted a yes, as though my obvious question only confirmed for him what a liability I was on this trip. As the merchants caught sight of us, we were greeted like heroes returning from battle, with many coming up and saying, “Hello, Mr. White”. I tried to hide behind Christopher as best I could, but this was somewhat futile, considering he was about half of my height. Thankfully, we went no further than the first stall on the outskirts of the Village, and the negotiations began anew. The shade of the bridge helped combat the heat of the afternoon, but I knew I didn’t have much time left before I compromised our negotiating position by passing out. So, when Christopher came back to me and said, “He wants 6500 naira (about $60 Cdn),” I leapt at the offer like it was a free gift. At that point, I would have bought the bridge we were standing under if one of the sellers had offered it up.

Crouching over my backpack, I carefully pulled out a wad of $500 naira bills. I’m not sure what the best process is for counting out cash, but I’m confident this wasn’t it. Fumbling to count out the bills, I handed over the money to Christopher who wisely did a double count of it. Our salesman smiled as we delivered the cash and dutifully wrote out a receipt which I’m pretty sure would be a challenge to have honoured in the event that my phone was a dud. We thanked each other for the successful conclusion of the transaction and headed back to the car.

On the way, I clapped Christopher on the arm and thanked him for guiding me through the adventure. He smiled and raised an eyebrow, “So, now we go to exchange your US dollars for naira?” Oh, God. Lead on, my man.


Monique said...

OMG!! I need more!! Keep writing!!

Anonymous said...

Great story, Whitey! Now you know how I feel being stared at my a billion Chinese because I look and waddle like Santa Claus. The giggles are a delight, though, and I don't have to negotiate anything because my Chinese friends fend for me -- like your DeVito Clone. BTW, greetings from Banff in the Rockies -- minus 13 today, with a bit of snow, but lots of blue sky.

Anonymous said...

PS. That last comment is from Victor, of course. I don't have a blogger account on google and don't want one. Like you, I refuse to use technology until I arrive in a place where they never heard of google. That left me only with the option to be "other" which turned out to be "anonymous". Next time, I'll fake it better. Victor

KareninTO said...

Glenn, I can't wait for the next episode. Be safe.