On the Sweetness of a Fake Book

You shop in Dar es Salaam at your own risk. Purchase a `quality’ light bulb at a stiff sum; three days later, it goes `poop.’ Get breakfast cereal in an attractive box; inside you find coarse, odd tasting stuff, and perhaps, a crawly bug or two. Buy a high-priced door lock upon a solemn assurance that it is the genuine item; after four months of use, it jams.

Fakeness is now integral to our lives. Fake promises by our bigwigs: that we are acclimatized to. Our lives are also enlivened by all manner of fake goods, fake education, fake medicines, fake news, fake friends, among a pervasive litany of fakes. We grumble, we complain. But the moment an opportunity arises, we boldly inject our own brand of fakeness into the fertile arena.

I thought I was a savvy guy, aware of all the varied brands of double deed. Sadly, I was wrong. A recent experience has made me realize that searching for the fakest of the fakes is like searching for the largest number; for any you have at hand, a bigger one exists out there.  And it has features even your wildest dreams cannot foresee. It is an experience worth sharing.

I was in a supermarket. My shopping list comprised sorghum flour, tea bags, honey and the like. A stand strewn with books distracted me. Setting the list aside, I expectantly scanned it from top to bottom. Virtually all were books of fiction. Looking like new, each bore the same price: TSh 6,500. A few classics aside, most were recent products.

I am addicted to books. Mostly I read the serious stuff: current affairs, history, biography, science, health, mathematics, etc. I do not watch TV or the movies. Compromised health prevents me from dining out with friends. For entertainment, I listen to music, stroll along the sea shore, and gobble up novels from a wide spectrum of genres.

A good mystery makes my day. Apart from the usual fare — Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Henning Mankel — I am also a fan of Arthur Upfield (Australia), Robert van Gulik (China), Tony Hillerman, Sarah Paretsky and Margaret Coel (USA), Kwei Quartey (Ghana), James McClure (South Africa) and Ernesto Mallo (Argentina).

A Coel tale relaxes you with a gentle romance and Native American history while keeping you on the edge for a few hours. The escapades of the enigmatic half-breed sleuth Napolean Bonaparte concocted by Arthur Upfield generate tension and pleasure as they give you fine insights into life in that continent down under, and especially into the Aborigine culture. I can go on, but it will divert us unnecessarily.

It being my lucky day, two enticing tales of detection were avaliable: Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh, and The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri. I seized both. Anticipating Farida’s complaint about my book mania, I added a bar of dark chocolate to the basket. 

I was on the mark: She smiled brightly as her eyes fell on her favourite after dinner treat. But she had a question: What did this box of biscuits cost? Only rarely do I look at the sales receipt again. Her query made me do it. Frankly, I was astonished at what I found. The last item was two kilos of sugar.  I had bought honey, which was itemized, but not sugar. Moreover, no book item was listed.

How can one confuse books with sugar? That was my first thought. But the probable reason why the sales girl had made the substitution then came to mind. The books did not have a bar code label. To enter them on the sales register, she would have had to look it up, and enter it manually. Entering two kilos of sugar instead saved her the trouble. Consequently, I paid TShs 3,400 for items worth TShs 13,000. It looked like a twice over lucky day for me, though at the expense of her employer. Yet, more often than not, such mistakes result in customers being overcharged and not the other way around.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I regularly shopped at one large grocery store. Its sales clerks earned about US $7.50 per hour, or US $60.00 for an 8-hour shift. The sales girls in Dar es Salaam, who do exactly the same job, are lucky to secure US $4.00 a day. With the daily wage, the latter can get 4 kilos of sugar while the former can get 30 kilos (at the price of 2 US$ per kilo). Is it then reasonable to expect our super exploited workers to be loyal employees, or work with diligence? Cost of living has been globalized, but real wages of ordinary workers remain as they were fifty years back.

Another crucial difference: In Los Angeles, I was invariably greeted at the sales counter with a big smile: “How are you today? Did you find everything you wanted?” and was sent off with a cheerful “Have a good day.” Here it is a low key affair; at times you just pay and depart with your stuff in silence.

One day, outside a nearby bank, I came upon that Los Angeles sales clerk who had cheerfully served me for years. She did not display even a hint of recognition, and calmly passed by as if I did not exist. Those wide smiles and pleasant words, I then understood, were fake smiles and words. They symbolized the automated postures of a depersonalized, corporatized, money-driven society.

Not so here. Our home born sales girl had that day greeted me with a polite “Shikamoo, Babu” (My respects, grandfather). It was a genuine utterance; there was nothing fake about it.

To return to my tale: That night, I eagerly seized my Nagio Marsh find, intending to go from cover to cover before falling asleep. It was then that I uncovered a truly unprecedented brand of fakeness. For, despite its authentic front and back covers, this was not a Ngaio Marsh work. From the first to the last page, it was a year-2003 autobiographical novel by Samira Serageldi, namely, The Cairo House (Harper Perennial, London, 2003).

Thou Shall Not Judge A Book By Its Cover – how so true. Books with frayed, half-torn or missing pages; those I have bought. Receiving by mail a book other than the one ordered; that I have experienced. But buying a book that misrepresents itself in such a fantastically fake way; now that was a truly novel event.

Probably the print runs of the two books had overlapped. Some copies mixed up the covers and contents. The mishap was likely discovered at the final inspection. Yet, instead of discarding them, the company sent them to a charity or institution through which they ended up in Africa. The loss was mitigated by itemizing the donation on the tax return and getting a tax deduction. The local supplier probably got them free or almost free. Probably they were part of a lot for free distribution to schools and libraries. But through dubious channels, they ended up in shops, earning a handsome profit for the supplier, and a nice cut for the public officials involved.

That is how we in Africa, since anything is good enough for us, end up buying fake books. In what is already a decidedly barren landscape for books and book reading, external forces and their local allies never cease placing new twists to compound our dilemmas. It is a long story: if they ban a potentially carcinogenic pesticide, the stocks are sent to us, not destroyed. If the date of sale of some commodities has passed, they are adroitly repackaged and bestowed on to us.

Dejected a bit, I read Andrea Camilleri. It was a spicy who-done-it in which Inspector Montalbano once more invokes tact and expertise to paddle through the rough waters of the Italian police bureaucracy, and diplomatically confront the political and business elite to reach a surprising conclusion. He did make my day, though he did not leave as sweet a taste in my mouth as Ngaio Marsh would have. The Cairo House has been set aside for now. One of these days, I will get to it. Will it be as sweet as a kilo of sugar? I wonder.

Source: Pambazuka News, 3 December 2014.


  • An award-winning retired Professor of Medical Statistics who has published many statistical and biomedical research papers together with articles on education, politics and other issues, six nonfiction books and one novel.

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