Conversation with a con man

Truth is a hot pepper, the Wolof proverb goes. Use too much and you spoil the meal.

After only a couple days in Senegal I had learned to tell tales.

Was I married?


Did I want to buy a baobab bonsai?

I'd be back the next day.

Would I give alms?

I'd already given.

The streets of Dakar were not mean, they were just demanding. And they literally wouldn't take "no" for an answer. In this polite society, communication was a careful negotiation, and little white lies appeared to be common currency.

By Week 2, I had grasped the theory of relativity that governed my new life. Relatively speaking, I was rich, and there were a number of people in this city of 2 million willing to relieve me of my burden of wealth. The tactics they employed were relatively fair, I concluded, since trickery works only on fools. It was a low-stakes battle of wits, and I liked to play.

My first con man was perfectly gracious as he invited me to attend his daughter's (imaginary) baptism and bring plenty of rice. No excuse would keep him from showering me with teranga, the country's famous hospitality; a handful of gold nuggets were offered in exchange for my friendship and five dollars. The "gold" was clearly bronze, but it all happened so fast and the man was so kind that I almost wanted to fall for it.

My last con man couldn't have picked a worse day. It was four months into my stay, and I was on the verge of a breakthrough. I felt something akin to belonging; I sensed a nascent possibility for true communion.

He was just a boy, 14 tops. Our eyes had locked through the open door of the Lebanese sandwich joint where I was drinking monkey-bread juice while finishing a letter. In seconds he was at my side, grinning wide and preparing to pester me.

"Don't you remember me, Mariama? I'm Fatou's brother!"

Fatou was our housekeeper and her numerous "brothers" were in fact a group of young hustlers who preyed on gullible American students with alarming success. While the scenario was by now public knowledge, the kid had probably paid some observant street vendor 25 cents for the rights to my Senegalese name. His investment was supposed to pay off when I agreed to lend him a couple of bucks to buy a book for school, a sum that Fatou would allegedly reimburse back at the house.

In a button-up and khakis, with a book bag settled snugly on his shoulders, he actually looked the part. The performance was first-rate, and his persuasiveness in pretending to know me made me wish he did. Instead of recognition, I saw in his gaze the faceless, nameless person that I was to him.

But then, who was he to me? Just another one of Fatou's "brothers," another con for my collection, an exotic story to write home about.

When the boy arrived at his finale with a flourish, I may have applauded. In any case, he got the picture when I began grilling him on what school he attended and why he wasn't in class at 11 a.m. His kind of talent deserved to serve a higher purpose.

"Have a seat," I suggested, flashing a big smile. "Really, sit!" He sat. Since most scams owed their success to the practiced courtesy of the person doing the scam, I figured I would give teranga a go myself.

"Are you thirsty? Want a juice? Hungry?" It worked. As the gracious hostess replaced the rude American, the budding con artist receded to reveal a typical Senegalese boy, respectful of elders and shy around women.

We must have talked for over an hour. Though I can't recall every detail, I do remember that two conversations took place at once. There was a fairly banal exchange that must have sounded like polite small talk to anyone listening, and there was a secret discussion, audible only to us, that went much deeper. Sort of like the difference between "How are you?" and "Who are you?"

We parted that day smirking, knowing what we knew and waving goodbye forever to whoever we were.

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