Thursday, February 14, 2008

If I Had A Million Naira

The happy couple hold hands and beam at each other in the way that only the newly married can. Relatives and friends gather around them to express their congratulations as the band takes its cue to get the party started with their version of “What I Like About You”. As tradition dictates, gifts of money are given to the bride and groom by pressing the bills to their foreheads and releasing them. The bills pile up on the floor, and soon the entire wedding party is dancing through a swirl of bills like children kicking up autumn leaves. Then the police arrive and take them all to jail. The newly minted husband and wife receive adjoining cells, so they can at least hold hands through the bars. Conjugal visits remain a question mark, so we’re left with a consummation cliffhanger as we leave the couple to their unhappy honeymoon.

So goes the latest public service announcement/warning filling the airwaves during the intermissions of the Africa Cup football matches. The crime perpetrated by the wayward revellers? Abusing the Naira, which sounds like a euphemism for something much more naughty and interesting. The Naira is the currency for Nigeria, and the Central Bank has chosen to clamp down on any activity that leads to the deterioration of the bills, including shameless celebratory dancing. The penalty imposed is six months in the slammer or a fine of 50,000 Naira. No word as to whether the incriminating bills would be accepted as payment.

To be fair to the Bank, the Naira that I’ve been using over the past three months are usually in very hard shape, with the 2005 edition looking as though past owners had truly put their money where their mouths were. Or maybe some other orifices. Anything older than 2005 requires close examination to determine the denomination. That’s a shame, because the bills are actually quite attractive. The fronts are dominated by the usual past heads of state and people of note, but the reverse sides score more points for artistic merit with depictions of ordinary Nigerians plying their trades and dancing (The artists being careful not to draw Naira underfoot). My favourite bill is the one for 500 Naira, which paints a tranquil ocean scene and puts an oil rig in the middle of it. There’s a certain unapologetic honesty about a central bank choosing to honour the commodity that has generated most of the wealth in the country over the past fifty years. Maybe Canada will someday follow suit and lose the loon in favour of the TimBit. After all, the “Timmie” would be more endearing to world markets than the connotation of craziness inherent in the loonie. Who could resist investing in a currency that conjures up images of the kid who fell in a well and was rescued by Lassie? Roll out the Tim to win, my fellow Canucks.

Speaking of things Canadian, the exchange rate of the Naira to the Timmie (See? Irresistible.) is currently 115 to 1, which means that my monthly VSO allowance of 30,000 Naira translates to roughly $260. If someone had told me before I came to Nigeria that I could comfortably live on $3000 per year, I would have slapped the top of my head and fallen flat on my face. (A rather unfortunate way to express shock, I admit. Small wonder that people stopped throwing me surprise parties.) The VSO perks extend beyond the monthly allowance, of course, as my residency at the Pink House doesn’t figure into that amount and travel in the Batmobile is free (if you don’t count the years taken off my life). But even with these bonuses, three grand doesn’t seem like much at first. In Nigeria, it constitutes a small fortune.

Consider some of the costs I’ve encountered to date:

Lunch of yam and beans with a Coke: 90 Naira ( = 78 cents Cdn)
One dozen bananas: 100 Naira (87 cents)
10 minute taxi ride from Kagoro to Kafanchan: 50 Naira (43 cents)
3 hour transport from Kafanchan to Kaduna: 500 Naira ($4.30)
Large bottle of Star beer (= two Moosehead): 150 Naira ($1.30)
Bottle of drinkable Spanish red wine: 600 Naira ($5.23)
Passing out and waking up with a new tattoo: Priceless

As with most places, the secret to stretching the Naira is to buy only local products and services. Any goods produced in Nigeria can be picked up cheaply, but abandon the yam in favour of a bowl of Trix? Silly rabbit. Trix are for millionaires. The stores that cater to ex-pats in the larger cities are glowing oases of Western consumption, but their shelves are stocked with fond memories at prices that I don’t remember. A regular box of Rice Krispies will set you back over $10 Cdn. A small jar of Nutella rings in at $8. On a volunteer’s salary, caving in to a comfort food craving can wipe out a month’s earnings in a single binge. Of course, window shopping is free, so an hour’s browsing is a good tonic for homesickness. And it’s also good fun to lurk in the parking lot and wait for Embassy staff to drop a can of Green Giant corn on the way back to their Cadillacs.

Detours to Haagen-Dazs heaven aside, it doesn’t take long for one to stop converting prices to a home currency and begin to think strictly in Naira. This leads to the joy of haggling, a competition worthy of inclusion as a demonstration sport in Beijing. Nothing ever has a price tag attached, so the initial cost depends on the vendor’s need, mood and estimation of you as an adversary. I’ve come a long way from my naïf days in the GSM Village, but my efforts in the market would still disappoint my cellphone negotiator. Still, I’ve walked away from okada drivers who demanded 30 Naira for a 20 Naira ride, so I see that as some measure of improvement. I know it sounds rather ridiculous and petty to argue over such small amounts, but the fact is that everyone negotiates and no one takes the process personally. Like the vendor in the Life of Brian, a failure to haggle is a missed opportunity for entertainment, especially when the buyer is more chump than Trump. And, unlike dancing on the Naira, haggling will not get you featured on "Nigeria's Most Wanted".

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