Fixers Not Always From Paradise

In Between

They come at you wearing the kind of suits you wear as a desperate investment in yourself, wielding material of all faiths, last-century equipment barely holding with suspect tape, anti-colonialist threats, counter-threats, promises, names of so and so from your company you have only vaguely heard of, emails full of spelling mistakes and strange sentences.

But you must understand them, they are bridges between two worlds, caught trying to please one while coming from another, but are these worlds so different? Haven’t you been caught in that same space? Prostituting yourself, your mind, is that not worse than the body in some ways, deforming yourself for money, to please an ideal, one that was constructed for you somewhere, somehow.

They lie, they deceive, bang at your door when you don’t need them, call or email with obscure stories you have no use for, exaggerate. They invent statistics, make up quotes, get paid to forward information, they disappear for weeks. They can’t work on Sundays because of church duty even if a burgeoning civil war is in the offing. They turn off their phones, sometimes it is the power that goes off and the battery runs out. Whatever the reason, they often elude, but sometimes don’t, they work at their own convenience, at their own pace, within their own reality, but shouldn’t we all?

We drive through rebel areas or walk through displaced camps and their relatives show up on the side of the road, looking at us, waiting for a handout.

They run away from danger, they get drunk, they see convoluted details where you want logic, they show up three hours late, they have no shortage of excuses, each one actually more interesting than the previous one, more interesting in effect than the story you are covering.

They beg for new forms of payment, they never like the way you pay, even when you overpay, they want another currency, a cleaner bill, they send a million emails for one payment, they beep you asking for new equipment, new shoes for their daughters, a visa, a work opportunity elsewhere. When the payment arrives, nary a word to confirm, initially, although that changes over time if the payment becomes more frequent or stops.

More often than not, they are your lifeline, your eyes, your ears, your interpreter, your guide, your deliverer of informational nuggets, your only friend sometimes. They are fixers, for you the Bigfoot, stomping their trodden ground, having to deliver stories with your own techniques and superficial yet angled, and sharp as you can hope for vision.

First Trip to Cameroon

It was my first trip to Cameroon. Sometimes place names are so evocative, even if colonialistic. You can’t escape that fact. They conjure up all sorts of images, and then you are there, and it’s never what you expected but then places have a way of becoming self-fulfilling.

Off a street hawker, I bought a CD by a 70s musician called “Prince Nico.” He wore big red boots and crazy clothes, and his music is trippy. For whatever reason, that was probably the best part. I even got a fair price.

It would be another failed election for the eternal incumbent. There would be delusional winners, the communication minister said “God has mysterious ways, so we do not know what the president will do, but we expect him to run again.” The president’s wife would be strangely coiffed. The losers would say they had activists beaten down, votes stolen, moderates bribed into silence.

My Liberian admin assistant no longer organized my trips after the first time to Nigeria when I arrived late without the supposed driver waiting for me, and without a reservation at the hotel she had told me to go to which I reached at three in the morning. It does sound pampered and it is, but when you are carrying all this expensive gear, and with requirements to file as soon as you touch the ground, sometimes it is just something you get used to, but could very well do without as you used to, but that is obviously getting into my serpentine brain.

So I organized my own trips after that, and nothing would change, but at least I would be to blame, which is usually better. Containment has its virtues. Especially when you communicate too much, and not well enough. But let’s get away from serpents.

The plane predictably arrived about six hours late, or a quarter day late, and my poor stringer welcomed me with a warm, huge grin. I was the first of two Bigfoots on his plate for the week, another was coming from Washington. I was arriving from Abidjan, so already in phase with the sounds, warmth and motion of the ambulant markets where everyone it seems carries something to sell or which allows them to extract money from you, or at least they would hope so.

The other Bigfoot wasn’t there yet, but it was going to be a big week, an election week, a week of cheating and lies, final rallies, evil victories where nothing changes and dashed hopes, or at least a brief opportunity to vex anger, to test limits, to stare down the barrel of injustice. I flew in to Douala, but had to go to Yaounde, normally about three hours away under local driving conditions.

A Slow Drive to the Hotel

I had read once in the Economist about a beer truck in Cameroon and all the roadblocks and the officials, and how the beer had probably sat around for days in crates whether in airport warehouses or at serious roadblocks before being served, not so fresh perhaps.

It was around midnight. This stringer was supposed to be a driver/fixer, an ideal situation. He had emailed me the day before that it might be difficult for him to secure a car but that he would try his best.

The stringer had a nice crisp yellow polo shirt, he looked a bit nerdy, but friendly.

He walked me to the car, and lo and behold, he had two other assistants, one another fixer, fixer number two, one more mouth to feed and to be fed from as it were, and a driver, who was also a cop, and actually selling the car, which was still painted as a taxi, not making matters easier.

Fixer number two was smiling, the cop didn’t really seem to care. At least that meant he wasn’t expecting anything from me directly.

The first fixer told me he didn’t know how to drive and that his wife was trying to buy the car, to rent it out as a black market taxi, and that they would have to paint over the yellow, maybe, but had not yet finalized all the details.

So I slouched in the back seat, which would be a long slouch. A truck driver had been killed in a road rage dispute with a police officer and other truck drivers had set up a barricade just outside the airport. It would take us about four hours just to make it outside Douala, plenty of time to discuss the politics of the day, the bilingualism of Cameroon, the road rage all around us, the Cameroonian way of speaking very proper and academic French, their hustle and bustle not unlike Nigerians, their frozen politics, not unlike a communist state, their beer and tire factories, and all their soccer players, and villages they came from, and soccer fields. We did not, or I did not dare broach more into the topic of the car, for fear I would have to pay for it myself, which it turned out was kind of the plan.

So we arrived at my hotel in Yaounde in time for no breakfast, or at least wait about three hours until we can serve and buy whatever weird thing you want to eat, oranges, eggs? Bread? Cheese? at some market and put it together for you, power outages, cook could not make it to work, they were all out of butter, notwithstanding. The much advertised Internet café was usually occupied by one of the hotel staff who had just discovered or was in the thralls of chat sex and obviously left her conversations sprawled in big all over the computer, in all bold caps, full of phonetics, disconcerting somewhat but not that much, none of the descriptions were that shocking, entertaining at least, amid my attempts to discern the politics of the day, the latest complaint, forecast of unavoidable doom and gloom, unfree and unfair election.

The hotel, even though I had asked the fixer over and over, had no balcony for my communication equipment to work, but while I was waiting for the car to be repaired, as it had stalled a few times on the way from the airport, I walked around with the three-pronged microwaveable, radiating, but I hoped not too much, white panes of my satellite ISDN phone, good technology when it worked, when there were no clouds, trees, or big news elsewhere in the world such as a bombing in Baghdad to clog it up, and by no means the latest and smallest of the kind, corded up across the hotel hallway and through a few windows into an open knee high yard of grass, but I am usually happy when I get to wallow in some part of nature, however small, walking around with that thing on my head, waiting for the high-pitched beep, which would mean I had a signal, which to me was like landing on the moon, for it meant filing was possible, and I would not have to wait for the chat fiend to finish up making her anatomical descriptions to her chat correspondent.

And it did work, at about eight dollars a minute a call, but I was not paying.

So I filed, did my interviews, running around looking for off-election topics, so I picked AIDS, met theorists, activists, bureaucrats, ngo in a briefcase types and researchers with grand work but no words to say it and after a few times of pushing the car down a hill, up a hill, waiting for fixer number one, fixer number two and driver/cop to make it late from yet another visit to the garage, the other Bigfoot finally arriving and sweating profusely, carrying his ugly company issued laptop backpack which I dared not use, talking about the old days in Africa, and who he knew and how he knew them, and how much better his hotel was than mine, who was still trying to save the company money, we finally made it to election day.

A President Speaks, a Journalist Faints

Paul Biya, the president, does not go out much. And he only speaks to one journalist, some guy from state television, dressed like a prince. Not as cool as Prince Nico though, but probably more lethal.

The “money shot” is getting the president as he puts his ballot in the box. The chaos among photographers, videographers, local journalists wielding cell phones, and security men is ferocious. I call it a scrum, as in yeah, that was a good scrum. Luckily, the color of Mrs. Biya’s outfit, probably canary yellow, and her extravagant coiffe was quite entertaining.

Before entering the voting area, there had been an extreme security check, not to deprive this great artificially produced country of this great couple.

The “money sound” is the president’s quote, quip, saying, revelation, thought of the moment. How plain and boring can he go? Will he let loose? Will he say something out of line? That usually happens after the voting takes place, just outside the voting booth, and is even more of a scrum, as all the print journalists are also hanging out trying to get their questions in, or at least hear the quote.

I usually wear my combat boots, stomp, claw, use my retired soccer elbows, use my relative skinniness to slither through the crowd, and a very long mike that looks like a gun so I get decent sound, even if I am usually scrunched. The technique is to find the eye of the scrum’s storm and stay as close as you can. There is also positioning, and predicting where something will happen before it happens. Videographers, photographers, everyone has their technique.

Obviously, the aim was to stay as close to the prince as possible. And that’s what happened. He had the money question. Monsieur le President, comment vous sentez vous?

Mr. President, how do you feel?

Biya told him in his very hushed voice, his few words of wisdom, that he would win, and that all was well, the day was fine, elections were a grand moment, the sun was bright … and during all this riveting stuff, fixer number one fainted.

A slight commotion ensued. Biya was whisked away.

Cameroonian journalists were quite excited, walked on, around fixer number one, said they had never heard Biya answer a question since the last election day seven years ago. They said he had never held a single press conference.

A few wanted to hear my tape. A female Chinese journalist was there and in perfect French asked me if I could play my tape.

The other Bigfoot was trying to prop fixer number one back on his feet. Fixer number two was nowhere to be seen.

So we took fixer number one to the US embassy election day war room. Mayo-laden sandwiches and ice cold soft drinks were being served. Their media people had plenty of information, evidence of cheating, discrepancies from throughout the country. It was good for the report.

The air conditioned room, straight out of a government office anywhere in the US down to the tiles and bathroom stalls, and those white cardboard things with the little holes, was good for fixer number one. This was the first world, with dim office lights, cold encounters, the droning hum of the chilly ac, in a world of dust, unpredictability, teetering on the verge of malarial expunging.

Which is probably what he had, a bout of malaria, brought about by the stress of being a fixer for two Bigfeet, and of maybe hearing Biya answer a question. Incumbent Glides to Re-election, Opposition Cries Foul, bla, bla, interesting like a sports match to quickly follow, anticipate the spins and turns, ups and downs but predictable and after a while, somewhat formulaic …

A Long Drive to the Airport

Fast forward to my day of departure. This time fixer number two is supposed to drive me to the Yaounde airport, from where I am supposed to fly to Douala, and then back to war-torn Abidjan, a home away from this team of fixers.

I talked to fixer number one the night before, heard he was doing better, wished him well, thanked him for all the work, the little he did manage to do pre-malaria, I had overpaid him maybe, maybe not, it’s always difficult to judge monetary value, also paid the cop for driving me around in the run-down car. I had been told my payments were payments to finish paying off the car. I had paid fixer two a bit of money as well, had patiently listened to all his stories of working for German radio, of wanting to do more, of wanting to go to Europe, the United States, the moon, that he was the son of a privileged man, but that without political contacts in Cameroon, there was no prosperous future.

He wanted a job at my company too, but that was more a question for Bigfoot number two from headquarters, although, he didn’t pay anything for the shared use of the fixers, the cop and the car.

Late as always, on the morning of my flight, fixer number two showed up. I rushed, threw my equipment into the back of car, and told him to pounce on the accelerator.

Sure he said, but first, we must go to fixer number one’s house. I said, but I already said bye to him, had a lengthy talk, wished him well. No, he said, he really wants to see you.

So after a surprisingly short drive, into his one room home, I walked. His wife was there. Both were sitting. The room was dark, damp. I was told to sit as well.

After that, he didn’t say a word. I didn’t either. He made weird movements with his mouth, but no sound was coming out. His wife was silent, looking down.

So then I said, well it was nice to see your very nice home. I see you are better and I thank you for all the hard work. I’d like to stay awhile, and be nicer, and tell you that we’ll go to Corsica next year together, and it’s ripping me apart inside me, but I won’t do anything about it, and I have a plane to catch, and sometimes in Africa, they leave late, but sometimes they leave early.

I hope you get better, I added, and walked out.

Fixer number two was waiting for me in the doorway. He walked slowly back to the car.

As he struggled to get the motor started, he told me fixer number one had wanted to ask me for more money, but didn’t dare to ask. No kidding, I said.

When we approached the airport, there was an eerie feeling that not much was going on. It was a generally green scene, with grass growing wild all around, but not much of pollution in the air.

One sleepy guard told us all internal flights had been cancelled for the day because of a shortage in kerosene. He said it happened a lot.

He asked us if we had any cigarettes.

So in exchange for more advance on the car payment and I hoped money for more malaria medicine for fixer number one, fixer number two agreed to drive me back to the Douala airport.

It was a lush drive, green as well, the potholed road emptied out of too much traffic, very enjoyable, with no roadblocks, interrupted only by nervousness every time a speed in the gear box refused to give.

From five to four, we were down to three speeds, driving slower and slower, maxing out at about 50 kilometers an hour, starting to be passed by everything that you usually pass on an African road, expecting perhaps the goats and the people with their livelihoods balanced on their heads or going to fields on their bikes with machetes. Some of those people seem to be floating, but that’s another story.

Fixer number two was getting nervous, more worried about his trip home, than me being late for my plane, when suddenly, absurdly at the roadblock outside Douala, without really being asked, without a menacing AK-47 pointed in his direction, just a vague wave of the hand, he pulled over.

I seethed, and braced for the worst. I was used to Abidjan where you didn’t pull over unless there was a real risk of being shot at.

The bellied up cop, that’s when you eat, Africans say, when you extract money from others, was wearing military boots and using them to kick a poor drunk bum who had made the mistake as well, of a moment of hesitation in the roadblock zone.

The bum had no papers on him that day, so he was getting paid back with kicks to his shins, cursing while he crumpled over, bracing for the meanness of a fellow human, who for some reason thought he was superior.

So the cop would pause his kicking, and tell us that no this story, this yellow cab being bought by the friend of my driver’s wife was too absurd. To make matters worse, but not surprising, all fixer number two had was a driver’s license from when he was in his early 20s, in Nigeria, that had long expired anyway, and we weren’t in Nigeria to begin with.

He told me when business was still good for his dad, he was sent to study at a university in Nigeria. I didn’t ask what his father’s business was or what he studied.

By then, there was a back and forth between different cops and the car, fixer number two looking a bit bewildered and confused. Go, go, I told him, you got us into this mess.

We were parked in the sun. I was losing it, so I just took off my shirt. Underneath, fittingly, I was wearing my wife beater and thought of myself as a badass to pass the time.

Not that I would ever beat a wife, and I hadn’t found a woman I wanted who would say yes.

He came back, panting, they want 200 dollars! I said what are they crazy? Tell them ten dollars, and that’s our final offer. Tell them I have to take a plane and go back home. We are so very close to the airport, and I might miss the plane. And that I’m a journalist who writes about corruption. OK, maybe, don’t tell them the last part.

I couldn’t hear what was being said. I could just see their lips moving. In between putting his hands on his hips, the main cop would walk over to the bum and kick him some more.

The bum waxed cursing poetry.

I stopped watching the human scene, and just looked at the tall grass around me, only to be interrupted in my useless gaze by fixer number two..

They say they want to impound my car! Your car? Well, you know. They say cops can drive you to the airport but that they will arrest me.

Ok, just give them 50 dollars. So silently we passed. The cop waved at us, smiling, kicking the bum.

I made it to the airport just in time to catch my plane, and for a few parting words. Word of advice, on your way out of town, don’t stop at the roadblock even if they start shooting.

I gave him some extra cash for the possible repairs needed on the way home. I called him several days later, asking if he had made it home ok. He said he had, even though the final part of the drive he only had two speeds left, and that fixer number one was feeling better, but they were wondering if I could Western Union some more money to finish off paying for the car. I declined politely, but said I wished to work with them, again, one day, maybe.

On my plane ride home, I sat next to two missionaries. They told me about their trip to Cameroon. It sounded so different than mine, and yet maybe it wasn’t.

Popular Posts