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A Court Of Fowls: Episode Five

...I glanced around the Minister’s office. While mine was luxuriously appointed and rarely contained more than a handful of papers, his was completely overrun with files and dusty, tied bundles of correspondence of all shapes and sizes. These were heaped high, and covered not only the full area of his desk but also much of the floor space – to such an extent in fact that it was difficult to trace a path to a chair which Hassan casually indicated I should be seated in. My exaggerated
impression was that this room might have contained the
entire workings of the Somali Civil Service!...

Stewart Munro comes face to face with the man who can award him a lucrative deal.

Michael Conrad Wood continues his entertaining new novel.

Unsurprisingly, there was no Commercial Secretary at the Somali
Embassy. The sole Charge´ d’Affairs was completely untraceable. To
be fair, this wasn’t untypical of African diplomats in the region.
While drawing his disproportionately large salary I imagined him,
like others, permanently lazing on Diani Beach in Mombasa, or engaging
in some illicit trade with Zanzibar Arabs. Or still worse, I
thought jealously, indulging by day in the sort of entertainment I was
only free to enjoy after hours.

I have to admit however, that when I arrived in Mogadishu I was
more than pleasantly surprised. My tarnished view of the place had
been derived of course from third hand information, much of it
wholly inaccurate. In truth it was nothing like as bad as my informants
had implied. Indeed I rather liked the change it presented.

The capital was more Arab than African as far as I could make out
from my initial reconnaissance. Streets were generally narrow but full
of interesting hustle and bustle. Markets were busy and brimming
with exotic food and locally made paraphernalia. The people looked
proud, even noble, and those women who were not shrouded in the
black burqah, seemed majestic, exotic and rather stunning in their
bright billowing dresses and matching head scarfs. The whole town,
for that is what is was rather than a city of Nairobi’s proportions,
was aerated with a refreshing sea breeze. At no time did I feel overcome
by suggested furnace temperatures.

I’m no expert on culture but Somalia’s seemed at once embracing.
Those to whom I spoke were warm, welcoming and fascinating in
their reflections on life. Somalis I discovered, were dynamic, imaginative,
curious about and not hostile towards foreigners, and their
generosity belied underlying economic difficulties.

It took only a short time for me to conclude that BAAT cigarettes
could do rather well in what I was quickly coming to see as a
hidden oasis. Somalia’s men, I observed, puffed away at revolting unfiltered
high-tar fags. Worse than the French! Surely they would appreciate
a finer brand of tobacco if it was available. The crunch was
how to make headway in what looked like a fully fledged Soviet-style
command economy? I posed this question to the proprietor of
Mogadishu’s most imposing hotel accommodation – the crumbling
Ambassador on Via Morocco.

‘My friend,’ he replied resignedly, ‘you can only go to the Ministry
of External Affairs. Make your peace with them and anything is possible.’

It took a couple of days to arrange but I was finally given an appointment
to see the Honourable Muse Hassan Ali. The building
looked as if it had been constructed by a colony of termites so slapdash
had been the application of plaster-cement over brick work,
much of which was still exposed. A stairwell on the western wing
was the only access to the top floor, from where, apart from my vertigo
and hypsophobia, I noted that sudden cosmetic improvements
were evident. Most striking of these were a bright red carpet running
the corridor’s length and a similar hue of paint slapped on the Minister’s
office door, as if by a performing chimpanzee.

‘Salaam. Good day, good day. Come, come,’ was the manner in
which the diminutive Minister beckoned me into his messy office,
followed by a most unexpected bear hug and a kiss on my cheeks –
from which I absorbed, involuntarily, his distinct perfume (not unlike
Samson’s) and felt the stiff bristle of his moustache.

‘Stewart Munro,’ I offered, extending my hand to shake his.

‘A fine Scottish name,’ he observed, ‘and I can hear the accent. I
studied at Edinburgh University, you know – history. Which part of
the “ice box” do you hail from?’

‘Portobello, originally,’ I replied, seeing no reason to quibble with
his succinct appraisal of Scottish meteorological conditions.

‘Ah yes, I remember it well. A so called beach resort. Standing on
the promenade in the middle of summer was enough to freeze my
black balls off. The place was popular with Glaswegians, I recall.
People with nowhere else to go for their holidays.’

‘Glesga keelies,’ I readily agreed.

I glanced around the Minister’s office. While mine was luxuriously
appointed and rarely contained more than a handful of papers, his
was completely overrun with files and dusty, tied bundles of correspondence
of all shapes and sizes. These were heaped high, and covered
not only the full area of his desk but also much of the floor
space – to such an extent in fact that it was difficult to trace a path to
a chair which Hassan casually indicated I should be seated in. My exaggerated
impression was that this room might have contained the
entire workings of the Somali Civil Service!

‘Please forgive these accommodations,’ the Minister went on, ‘but
those Russians. They started to put up this death trap of a building
but never got much beyond constructing the shell. So much for aid.
What can we do,’ he chirped philosophically. ‘Can I give you some

Without waiting for a reply – perhaps he had detected my longing
for caffeine – he rang a little bell. Immediately a young woman appeared
from an adjacent room. She was so striking, so beautiful that
my heart raced. I’d never been so overwhelmingly bowled over. They
say that just being in the presence of a gorgeous female causes a
man’s testosterone and cortisol level to elevate substantially, boosting
alertness and well being. Certainly this seemed true of her effect on

To my ignorant eye, her attire seemed more Indian than Somali.
She wore a white cotton, close fitting full length skirt, much like a
sari in style but lacking in glitz, and a matching sleeveless blouse buttoned
fully to the neck. There was a fraction of belly showing between
the two garments, but no hint of fat. Her brown skin was radiant
and faultless, and was somehow emphasised by the simplicity
of her clothing. Her eyes were beguiling. There could be no mistaking
either, her alluring figure. I was completely mesmerised.

‘This is my assistant, Amina Abdullahi,’ the Minister proffered.
I stood up so quickly to offer an outstretched hand that I almost
lost balance and fell back into the chair. In any case the gesture was
astutely ignored, albeit with a shy hint of amusement. I learned later
that Somali women do not as a rule, shake hands with men.

The lovely Amina went off to prepare coffee. When she returned
the Minister invited her to take a note of the discussion. In truth I
could barely concentrate on the business at hand. For her part,
Amina hung on my every word and noted everything in short hand –
a rare and dying talent, even then.

‘So, your company wants to secure a foothold in Somalia,’ Hassan
chuckled, after hearing my opening spiel. ‘You may know of our
preference for Italian brands. We still like Nazionali when we can get
them, and a derivative of sigaro toscano.’

I improvised, ‘our brands are mild by comparison and definitely
in the low-tar category. My company believes that smokers in Somalia
can derive health benefits from this and the latest filter technology.’

‘Ha, ha, ha, haaaaaa. Ahhhaa, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, haaaaaaaa,’ he
bellowed without restraint. Needless to say I was taken aback by the
little chap’s full-bellied response to my sales pitch.

‘Ohhoo, ho, ho, ho, ho, hooooo, Ha, ha, he, he, hooooooo,’ he
continued, holding his stomach to minimise evident pain arising
from the extent of his mirth.

Heightening my bemusement, his lovely assistant joined in too.

They were both laughing so infectiously that it triggered, I’m astonished
to admit, an identical reaction in me despite best efforts at
containment. Soon the Minister’s office was a near cacophony of un-
restrained merriment. It had been like reading Flann O’Brien in a
Network South East commuter train, packed to the brim. Among
strangers it is of course hugely embarrassing to burst forth with
one’s involuntary cackle. But the more one pictures the subject of
witty dialogue, the more impossible it becomes to suppress the pressure
of laughter a second longer.

When at last normality was restored and Hassan had recovered a
little, he slurped down the rest of his coffee and invited Amina to refill
his cup.

‘Oh, that was a very good one Mr Munro. You’ll forgive my bad
manners I hope. I did not mean to enjoy myself at your expense.
That was very funny, and it seems you thought so too. Oh, ho ho.
Yes, I’m afraid your reference to health benefits was rather incongruous
when mentioned in the same sentence as cigarettes. And I
suppose you realise we have many other problems, the resolution of
which we would rank higher than fixing our custom of an occasional
puff on vulgar brands.’

‘Put like that Minister, I can of course see your point,’ I smiled.
As he slouched in his chair I noticed one obvious contrast with
his otherwise general air of relaxation. His eyes were fixed on mine
like a snake might view a rat. It seemed obvious he was weighing up
what sort of a man I was. How desperate to secure a deal. Was I an
honest broker? Could he pull a fast one? Who knows what else he
was thinking. He spoke in a most articulate way and was clearly as
sharp as a razor.

‘I’m presuming you have some of your famous products in that
smart brief case you are carrying. Am I right? Let us enjoy a top
brand then,’ he said before I could answer in the affirmative.
The room was soon filled with a cloud of blue-grey smoke and
there was silence for a minute or two as we both sucked in the nicotine.

I could see that Hassan was far from impressed. Indeed I observed
a wrinkle of his nose as a mark of the distaste he felt.

‘I have of course sampled these things before, though not until
the Russians departed our shores. I have to give you my honest opinion
that you will fail in your bid to get Somalis to smoke such cigarettes.
They are too, what shall I say ......... light. Yes, that is the word.
They are light.’

‘Could we at least try with our more popular brands?’ I did not
wish to infer ‘cheaper.’

I could see that the Minister’s mind was ticking over now, making
calculations. His keen little eyes flashed from me to the gorgeous
Amina. I waited, it seemed like an eternity, for his response. Suddenly
he was upright, all trace of amusement gone from his face. He
reminded me of a carpet salesman in a Moroccan souk.

‘I like you Mr Munro. You want to trade eh? There is no harm in
that I suppose. However we can’t have our people complaining, can
we, if they see the market suddenly filling up with what they perceive
to be weak smokes. We are sometimes quite a volatile people, as I’m
sure you know. Troublemakers have a habit of coming out of the
woodwork from time to time. We would need to avoid that at all
costs. So here are my terms.’

Amina’s pencil was still scribbling away furiously in her excellent
short hand. I took another look at her and savoured the image. She
was without question, magnificent.

‘You may start with an initially small shipment. Let us say no
more than five thousand packets in whatever brands you think might
appeal, including these,’ he said, indicating that which we had been
smoking. ‘The choice will be yours. The consignment will be channelled
through this Ministry for distribution to our market traders. I
will determine prices at the point of sale. Beforehand, you will need
to advise how much you want for the shipment. Let us hope your
figures do not put the deal in jeopardy. In any case, given the uncertainty
attached to the product range, I will pay for this first batch in
arrears, that is after we have sold on to the traders and monitored
how popular the smokes are. Thereafter we will pay on arrival of
goods in Mogadishu. Does that sound satisfactory?’

‘Minister, it has been a pleasure. We will happily meet your conditions,
and let’s hope there is potential in the venture.’

‘Thank you Mr Munro. Now I fear there is one further thought.
Your tobacco company is rich. We, in contrast, are a very poor nation.
It is therefore traditional when opening the door to a new enterprise
from outside Somalia, that we request security, just in case
something goes awry. Let us say, an ex-gratia payment of US$5,000
to get the arrangement off the ground.’

I was as near as damn it an old Africa hand but hadn’t expected
this. Nor did I have the authority to agree to ‘inducements’ on the
spot. It would need referring to Brickman. The payment would certainly
wipe out most of the profit which could be expected from a
first consignment. There was risk too that the Somalis would prematurely
suspend subsequent shipments. But if my firm was serious
about proposed penetration into Somalia, the sweetener might be
considered small beer in the longer term.

‘Sir, I’ll get back to you on the latter point, if you would be so
kind as to furnish me with your contact details’. I never spoke like
that in day to day conversation. God knows why I reserved such
gibberish for formal meetings with Africans.

Hassan gestured towards Amina. ‘My assistant will give you all
the help that you need. And of course she will be ready to show you
around our enticing city, or even to take you further afield should
you desire it. There is the Beach Club which is popular with the remaining
Italian fraternity, or maybe you could go to Kismayu.’7

His gesture seemed typical of Somali hospitality. Amina was smiling
her consent. ‘I will take him to Bakara Market, Minister. I am
sure that will be a good place to start.’

I shook Hassan’s hand and thanked him profusely, maybe a little
over-enthusiastically. Naturally I also left behind a few packets of
fags before climbing over his file collection to escape to the relative
order of Amina’s office.


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