Friday, August 17, 2007

Hirry (abridged)

August 16, 2007
Kumasi, Ghana

It would take too long to tell the story of Hirry properly in these digital pages. I’ve penned it elsewhere.

But the tale I’ve written about the young man I met in Osu lacks a conclusion that has only come with the revelations of time — and of my friend Christophe, who lived among Nigerians for six years and recognizes their scams.

Here is a synopsis of the salient details.

I met Hirry in Accra when he sat across from me and told me a story about buried treasure. He said he was a refugee from Sierra Leone whose father had been a great “rebel warrior” who accidentally blew himself up with his own grenade during the last civil war in the late 1990s. But before he died he buried a fortune in cash, blood diamonds and gold dust worth seven million British pounds sterling in a metal box on the outskirts of Freetown. Hirry knew where and he had the key; all he needed was $200 US to retrieve and bring it back to Ghana. If I’d help him, I’d get a cut.

Naturally that wasn’t going to happen, and I told him so. But I admit, the journalist in me was intrigued. If there was any merit to his story it would make a fantastic feature, the stuff careers are made of. I even considered accompanying him on a rather implausible overland journey from Accra through Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia — both of which have been torn apart by civil wars more recently than Sierra Leone— to help him dig up the treasure in the middle of the night and bring it back. I wouldn’t do it for the treasure, which I would not touch, but for the story, I explained. He said, Great. I said I’d think about it.

I suppose it’s salient to add that I was half drunk during that first two-hour conversation. Sitting at a plastic outdoor table on an Accra street, sun beating down, drinking beer and taking notes about Life, I didn’t tell Hirry to get lost when he approached me, but let him sit down and talk. I grilled him as I ordered more and more beer. At the end of it, I believed him.

When he phoned me a week later to say he’d got the $200 elsewhere and that he was going to Sierra Leone in a few days I still believed him, but was in no position to pick up and head to Freetown with someone I barely knew. Hirry seemed to expect my refusal. But he still wanted to meet me again, and as I happened to be passing through Accra I agreed.

This time he only wanted $100, to get back. Managed to wangle the first $200 from a girl he’d met. But he wanted much more than $100. Upon his return from Sierra Leone he wanted to come directly to Kumasi, where I’d told him I lived, to stash his loot. He wanted me to put the cash — he didn’t know how much — in my bank account and hold it for him. He wanted me to smuggle the diamonds and gold in my luggage when I returned to Canada. And he wanted me to help him get to Canada a few weeks later.

I explained why none of those things were going to happen, including the $100. He held his head and asked for whatever advice I could give.

At this point I still believed him. Not his entire story, but I believed that he believed his late father’s fortune existed and he wanted to go get it. But I wanted nothing to do with it, beyond write a story about it, and I told him as much.

Hirry guided me to the tro-tro park and before I got on the Kumasi shuttle he asked for some money so he wouldn’t have to spend any of his $200 on food over the weekend. I gave him $10. I felt I had to give him something. It was what I call a fuck-off payment, reserved for beggars and hustlers who are persistent when you don’t feel like arguing anymore. It’s just easier. Here’s some money; now fuck off.

During the drive I vowed never to give that guy another dime (or cedi). I reckoned it the $10 was worth it if he came through with a good story for me to write about. If not and it was all a scam — for this doubt did persist — then $10 was a small price to pay and I still had something to write about.

Hence this blog posting.

Hirry called me a week later. Said he’d been to Sierra Leone, retrieved what he went there for and had returned with a hired driver who he’d kept in the dark about the contents of the metal box. The driver wanted to talk to me. Wanted to know when I was coming back to Accra. Annoyed, I told him to call me some other time.

Which he did, two days later. The driver wanted to get paid and Hirry had told him I would pay. $200. I got Hirry on the line.

“Did you tell this man I would pay him two million cedis?”
“Why did you do that, Hirry? You know it’s not true.”
“Please what?”
“Please, I beg you…”
“You can beg me all you want Hirry, I’m not giving anyone two million cedis.”
“You will get a percentage…”
That pissed me off.
“No I won’t Hirry, I don’t want a percentage. Why don’t you believe me?”
“What should I do? Tell me what you want me to do.”
“I want you to believe me when I tell you that you’re not getting any money out of me. If you want to meet me sometime to tell me about your journey, fine. Otherwise, I want you to stop calling me. Do you understand?”
“But what should I do?”
“It’s not my problem, Hirry. I’m hanging up. Goodbye.”

The driver called me back a minute later. I told him the same thing: forget about the money and stop calling.

“Is that clear?”
“Yes. Bye.”

That was the last I heard from either of them.

When Christophe heard this story he laughed immediately and said he was 100 per cent positive I’d been the target of a Nigerian scam.

Such hustles are amazingly cunning and complex, he told me, having been a target himself. The Nigerians know how to offer a thing you really, perhaps secretly, want, anticipate your reactions and read them as they come. Christophe thinks Hirry’s mistake was in gauging how much money I’d be willing to gamble.

But I say Hirry’s mistake was not believing that I wasn’t interested in the treasure, just the story. True, he managed to get $10 out of me. Worse than that, I actually worried that he might have been hurt for lying to the driver, broken legs or whatever. So I’m a dummy. But a cheap one, at least.

Trish was a little flabbergasted at my naivete. She was skeptical about the story from the moment I first told her about Hirry, but took me at my word when I said I believed him. She’s a little miffed that Christophe’s second-hand impression of the whole thing carries more weight with me than hers, for she told me herself many times that it sounded like a scam. But he knows more about this culture and all its intricacies, including Nigerian hustles, than both of us together. That’s why I’m inclined to believe him. But really, we’ll never know.

One thing is certain, however: the next guy coming at me in Osu with a fantastic story involving minimum risk for incredible payoff, I’m going to try out a phrase of Nigerian pidgin English that Christophe taught me that means, loosely, ‘Why are you bullshitting me?’ (G)

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