I’d managed to book myself into the wrong hotel. There are two Fairmonts but I didn’t know that till we drove past the one I’d always stayed in and I said, “Shouldn’t we have made a U-turn there?”, wondering if I’d got myself caught up in a Moslem Brotherhood kidnapping. We sorted out what had happened and I started tapping out messages on my Blackberry telling people I wasn’t going to be where they expected and hoping it wasn’t going to cause too much trouble.
It’s a good hotel, even better than the one I usually stay in, though it’s the same price, 170 dollars US a night so long as you agree the non-refundable advance payment which saves fifty dollars a night but also meant I wasn’t going to be able to switch hotels in the morning.
The porter had shown me the room with great pride, lingering on the special features. He’d shown me the bathroom’s sliding doors you could open “so you can watch television while you take a shower or a bath” but I’ve seen those panels before, in places like Tanzania, and really they’re there so that light from the outside windows can filter in because it doesn’t matter how much you’re paying for the room in Dar, or how luxurious the hotel, you’re still going to get power cuts and it can take a while for the generators to kick in. It doesn’t matter here, either.
You prefer to shower in the evening or early morning, when there is no light outside the windows? Don’t, is my advice. You don’t want to be caught without light when you’re all soaped up.
Look out of the window and there’s the river, broad and slow-moving at this point and older than civilisation which, as the locals will tell you, began here. A view worth paying for. Closer than the river are buildings that once were grand, or intended to be grand, and on the roofs the shattered debris of development unfinished when the money ran out, or one more riot, one more civil war discouraged the landlord or simply made it pointless to go on spending. Every roof has people scavenging through its little pile of rubble, looking for anything that might be of use.
What am I doing here you’ll be wondering. It’s money, of course. They haven’t had any for so long but now it’s here, brought by the new stability or what looks like stability because how can you tell? There was a Portuguese contractor in Mozambique, the most beautiful country on the continent if you want my opinion. I asked him, “This peace. Will it last?” And he said, “This is Africa. There are no guarantees. But, for the time being, the sun is shining”. It’s shining here now. Development banks, governments, wealthy co-religionists who like what’s happening here, all pouring in dollars for roads, airports, hospitals, schools. And the politicians, and the people who own the politicians, they want some of that money. Not to build schools with, though. Their children are educated in Britain and the USA. They don’t care how bad the schools here are.
My employers want a share of the money, too, which is why they’re prepared to buy my Business Class ticket and pay for my five star hotel. They don’t speak the language and they need someone who does. They fear for their safety and they need someone who doesn’t. It isn’t violence they’re afraid of, or not just violence; they haven’t forgotten what happened in Iran when the new masters told visiting businessmen, “We think you charged too much on this contract. We want thirty per cent of those millions back and we’re keeping you here till your company pays up”.
It’s all far easier than you probably imagine. Britain has its Bribery Act, the US passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and there’s the OECD’s Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. That keeps the liberals happy – the people who believe that buying Fairtrade coffee actually helps subsistence-level farmers. I wish they could hear what people in Kenya say about that, though actually I don’t because they wouldn’t listen.
Still, it’s easy. You’re a conduit by which politicians and officials divert into their own bank accounts, wherever in the world those may be, some of the money meant to make poor people’s futures brighter. That means, if you’re selling something, there has to be a difference between the amount on the invoice and the sum you want to see in your bank account when the dust has settled. It also means, if the money was given to build a new bridge and the politician’s greatest need is for guns, that a little creativity goes into drafting the invoice and the shipping documents. Of course, someone’s likely to notice the difference between what it says on the Bills of Lading and what’s in the containers, but the someone has needs too – to pay his rent, feed his family, buy medicines for his mother and get his children into school. He’s cheaply bought.
Finding the person, establishing his need and fixing the price; that’s my area of expertise.
And then there are those who can’t be bought. The idealists. The honest men. It was because of one of those that I was in this island of luxury in a waste land of poverty.
I’d liked Ahmad when I’d first met him, back when we were fixing up this deal. I had him down as a pragmatist, which is what you want when you’re doing this kind of business. A few months went by while we got the gear ready to ship because you can’t stockpile this sort of stuff and the manufacturers can be almost as difficult as the funding agencies if they figure out what you’re doing. We’d had a letter of credit from the start; letters of credit are almost as good as cash because they aren’t contracts to exchange money for goods – the bank that issues them undertakes to give you money in return for documents of title. So long as the documents say what the L/C says they should, it doesn’t actually matter what’s in the vessel’s hold, but if the LC says all documents must bear a picture of the tattoo on your grandmother’s left buttock then you’d better get Granny to raise her skirt because if you don’t comply you won’t be paid. In theory, an international convention allows you to get an unreasonable term changed but I’d like to see you try.
So there we were, all ready to load a shipment worth twenty-five million dollars on which we would make five million, when my boss demanded my presence in his office. He’d had a phone call from a journalist. “My informant says you’re shipping guns in contravention of a UN resolution.” Of course, he wasn’t prepared to name his source but our chairman also chairs a couple of other companies, one of which is among the biggest manufacturers on the planet. In case you haven’t already worked this out, it isn’t a thirst for freedom of the press and an informed readership that says what gets into the papers – it’s advertising revenue. A threat that I don’t suppose was veiled got the story spiked and gave us the whistle-blower’s name. Ahmad.
‘You know this fucker,’ said my boss. ‘Find out what his game is. Ask how much he wants.’
So here I was, to do just that.
Revolving restaurants have had their day and personally I’d prefer to decide where to eat on the quality of the food but Ahmad was the man of the moment and this was his choice. They have a good wine list but he said all he wanted was water so I did the same. That choice bothered me; he hadn’t had a problem with alcohol last time we’d met. Had he been faking then? Was he now? Or was I looking at a changed man? The best way to get an answer is to ask the question. His answer was indirect. ‘Are you a believer?’
I said, ‘There is no God but God.’ It’s the standard answer to that question and it always gets a smile because of course they know that I’m not.
‘Would you like what happens in this country to happen in yours?’
‘I’d like the climate.’
‘I’m not talking about climate. We have two kinds of people: the fabulously rich and the poor. There is no middle ground here. No middle class. Think of a young guy with a good job in management. You think he takes his family out for a meal? A burger even, or a pizza? You think they go to the movies?’
‘I know they do.’
‘Yes, sure. Maybe once every three or four months. Because they don’t have money. Public education here stinks, so you save so your children can go to a decent school. Public health is even worse because there isn’t any. So he buys cover for his wife and himself and his children and after he’s paid for it he has nothing left. He’s poor. He’s a graduate and a manager and he’s poor. What do you think it’s like for a labourer? A gardener? A security guard? This is a peaceful country, but when the present is hopeless and there’s no hope that the future will be better you look at the alternatives.’
‘Have you seen what’s happening in Iraq?’
‘Not that kind of alternative. Banning half the population from any kind of education because it happens to be female won’t solve any problems. What we want is fairness. Starting with allowing the money we were given to build hospitals and pay doctors to be used for that purpose and not for what you want to do with it.’
‘It’s too late to change now. You should have said this six months ago.’
‘I didn’t know my wife had cancer six months ago.’
Suddenly I felt on firmer ground. ‘You should have come to us. We can get her into one of our hospitals. As a private patient. Paid for by us.’ Even as I said it I saw the problem. His share of the bribe was more than enough to pay for his wife’s care. It was a double illness. She’d got cancer and he’d developed a conscience.
He shook his head.
‘We’ll bring you over, too. Hotel near the hospital. Get the kids into school there.’
Another shake of the head. ‘That helps me. It does nothing for anyone else.’
I was irritated. ‘Ahmad, if you want to help people, stand for office.’
The head was still shaking. ‘It’s no good, John. I’m not going to help you.’
When the British still ruled Hong Kong, the old hands had a bit of verbal copperplate for new arrivals about the corruption that was everywhere on the island (and still is). “You can get on the bus. You can walk beside the bus. But whatever you do, don’t try to stand in front of the bus.” What Ahmad was telling me was that he was going to stand in front.
I called the waiter. ‘Bring me a double Macallan, please. No ice.’
‘Anything in it, sir? Dry ginger?’
I shook my head. There was plenty of water on the table; I’d add a little of that.
Ahmad’s smile was weary. ‘You’ve given up, then? Not going to try to persuade me?’
‘I know a lost cause when I see one.’
‘So. What shall we talk about? Football?’
I have no interest in the game but I joined in his discussion of the English Premiership. We finished eating and I said, ‘You know I can’t protect you? What good will your being dead do your wife?’
‘If anything happens to me, a file will go to every newspaper office in the West.’
‘You should make sure your masters know that.’
‘Oh, I will. I want a coffee. But first, I need the men’s room.’ I didn’t, but I did need to send an SMS.
When I came back to the table, I dawdled over a double espresso and another large Scotch to give my contact time to get into position. Then I asked for the bill.
We didn’t talk in the elevator because we weren’t alone. Two men in five thousand dollar suits that prevented their consumption of a hundred poor men’s calories from making them look gross. They nodded at me; Ahmad was beneath their notice. Nor, when we reached the street, did they glance at the milling crowd of men in ragged jellabiyas, women covered in black, children scrabbling in the dust. Inured to the poverty of others from earliest childhood, they didn’t ignore so much as simply fail to notice them. I looked into the shadow of the colonnaded sidewalk on the other side. The only thing noticeable about the two men sitting at one of the tables outside the cheap cafe was that they weighed three times as much as the other customers, and all of it muscle. And suits; they wore suits.
I used my phone to call my driver. To Ahmad I said, ‘Can I give you a lift home?’
‘That’s all right. I’ll walk.’
‘You live locally?’
‘I’ll walk, John.’
‘Okay.’ When we shook hands I made sure that we were sideways on to the street. As Ahmad moved away I saw the two men get up from their table and start to follow him. He didn’t once look back. Poor Ahmad was not made for this life he had embarked on.
Back at the hotel I bought a Cohiba and another Scotch in the bar. A waiter offered me a newspaper. My whisky and cigar cost more than he earned in a month; if he resented me or the affluence he saw every day it didn’t show on his smiling face. Possibly he was glad just to have a job. And the poor sometimes raise themselves; the man who built one of the largest conglomerates in the world began life as a road sweeper and, when his daughter married, the daughters of the richest men in the country boasted about their invitations.
I had a visitor at breakfast the following morning. He’d changed his suit and his shirt but there was no disguising the muscular bulk. He placed a laptop bag beside the table, sat opposite me and accepted a coffee.
I said, ‘All done?’
‘His widow won’t talk?’
He stared at me, his brown eyes betraying no emotion. ‘There is no widow. His children are orphans now.’
‘She saw us. You didn’t want any loose ends.‘
‘That’s right. I didn’t. Perhaps you could trace the grandparents? If they’re still alive? An anonymous donation…?’
‘If that’s what you want.’
‘And his press releases?’
He nodded towards the laptop bag. ‘In hand.’
When he got up to go, he left the bag behind. I took it to my room. There was no password. I found Ahmad’s little batch file without difficulty. His plan had been simple; if he did not fire up the laptop for 36 hours, his great mass of emails would be transmitted automatically. I deleted the lot. It was a nice laptop. I’d take it home, securely wipe the hard disk, reload Windows and give it to the kids.
And then I thought, no. You can’t do that. It isn’t yours. Company money paid for this. Wipe the disk, yes. Reload Windows, yes. But then you give it to IT and let them do what they want with it. The world needs honesty and honest men are hard to find.
The journey to the airport was slow, my limo bogged down by tuktuks, men carrying impossible loads on ancient bicycles and cars that had been on the road for too many years. I tipped the porter who carried my bag to the Business Class check-in counter about five times as much as was normal. A man as prosperously suited as the two in the elevator the night before said, ‘You foreign visitors spoil these people. What are you trying to achieve? Did not your own Jesus say, “The poor you have always with you”?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He did. But, sometimes, you want to reduce their number.’