We met Lukas and Germaine at a dinner party and the casual conversation took a turn into the topic of giving and receiving. Giving aid, giving presents at Christmas and even giving gifts without any expectations of receiving anything for it. Lukas and Germaine spent several years in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, he as an English professor at the University of Kampala and she as a healthcare administrator. They lived affluent lives, well paid foreigners in a society which rewards those in the right social position very well and often their salaries were topped up with extravagant gifts like cars or even houses.
“I want you to have my car. It’s a brand new Mercedes but I have 2 of them and you need a decent car,” the Deputy Minister of education said to Lukas during an afternoon tea at the University.
Lukas was taken aback, used to earn his rewards but the Deputy Minister would not hear of any excuses. “Take the car,” a local colleague of Lukas’ whispered in his ear, “he’ll take it as an insult if you refuse him.”
Lukas didn’t know how to thank for the lavish present and was momentarily speechless. When he showed Germaine the key to the new car she was equally flabbergasted but unlike Lukas she had no problem accepting the gesture.
“Giving is part of their culture,” she lectured her husband and the Deputy Minister is obviously in the position to bestow large gifts.”
“Doesn’t that put me in an awkward position, as if I now owe him something in return. It also could be interpreted as a form of bribery, God know what for ? What can an English professor do for the Deputy Minister of education ? Very strange custom indeed.”
Over the course of the years Lukas and Germaine spent in Uganda they received many such unsolicited rewards but since they were foreigners were not expected to reciprocate the gestures. Germaine was given the use of a luxury holiday apartment in Jimja on Lake Victora and Lukas regularly received cases of French Champagne or expensive wines from South Africa.
“It’s a bit like a potlatch,” Germaine remarked during another party where everybody tried to outdo everybody else with giving out lavish presents of exotic spirits or gadgets. “It reminds me of the Northwest Coast First Nations and their custom of given everything away just to arrive back home with all new stuff given to them by complete strangers at the potlatch ceremony.”
As their years in Uganda were coming to an end they were having to divest themselves of years of accumulated possessions, many of them gifts from local friends and government officials. Rather then try to sell their stuff they decided to emulate their local peers and give everything away but rather than give to the ones that already had everything Lukas in his infinite wisdom decided to lavish his goodwill on the less fortunate, like their servants. Thus he gave away furniture, kitchen implements and even clothes he bought and never wore to his cleaning staff at the university and the cooks at the cafeteria but the biggest surprise he saved for last. In a magnanimous gesture he presented his Mercedes, although now 5 years old, to Beko, their faithful gardener.
“Here Beko, I want you have my car, I cannot take it with me and it was given to me in the first place.” Beko held the key in front of him between thumb and forefinger like it was a rodent or dead bird. Lukas felt mighty elated and the truth of the fact that giving feels at least as good as receiving overwhelmed him. He thought that he finally understood the rewarding custom of giving gifts without expecting any sort of reward in return.
Germaine wasn’t so sure if giving the Merc to the Gardener was such a smart idea but then again she understood that her husband’s intentions were genuine and from the heart and she didn’t want to spoil his pleasure.
They flew off, back to Canada, taking with them the memory of a fine group of people and a colourful culture they were privileged to have been part of. Although is sounds like a cliché they would always carry a part of Africa within themselves. Back in Canada they had to buy everything they had just given away on another continent, including a new car, all the furniture and kitchen implements for their new house which came completely barren and devoid of anything that wasn’t part of the structure. They had saved enough money to afford to buy a small business as well as a house with a view of Howe Sound at the edge of the Pacific, just an hour away from Vancouver. They had bought the house 2 years previous when they were back in Canada for a holiday.
It was less then a month since they had left Uganda when an unusual phone call from Kampala upset their idyllic lives on the West Coast.
It was Bernard, a fellow professor and a good friend.
“Delighted to hear from you Bernard, how is everything ?”
“Beko, your former gardener, has been arrested and charged with grand theft and since he refuses to comply and confess he has apparently been tortured.”
“Oh my god, that’s terrible ! What did he steal ?” Lukas asked Bernard.
“Did you give Beko your Mercedes ?
“Well yes, he did so much for us over the years and he well deserved it.”
“Since he doesn’t own a drivers license he left the car parked on the road where it eventually was broken into. That’s when the police got involved. Somebody also told them that Beko tried to sell the car, claiming that you gave it to him as a gift. Now he is accused him of stealing your Mercedes. Because there is no proof and no witnesses and since Beko is poor and from the wrong tribe he is in this present situation. It would help him of course if you could collaborate his story.”
“You have to go back to Kampala and get Beko out of jail,” Germaine urged Lukas, “you have no choice. You cannot do this from long distance.”
Lukas arrived in Kampala and took a taxi straight to the main police station. On his way he also called Bernard who informed his friend that he had already made arrangements with a reputable lawyer to help out with the process. “Most importantly Lukas, nobody can loose face and nobody can be accused of doing the wrong thing here, except of course Beko who doesn’t really count due to his low social status. I hope you understand what’s involved here. It’s best to let the lawyer do the talking.”
Lukas tried to wrap his head around this new and unfamiliar layer of social interaction. He had always assumed that the poor people like Beko would eventually rise in status as the country edged towards a western style democracy but he was naïve to a fault to believe that thousands of years of social structure would vanish by a simple show of hands. Beko was not so much guilty of theft as he was of crossing the invisible social divide and Lukas had put him into this position.
Lukas met Bernard in a café who introduced him to Seboko Thelebe, the lawyer. “I have already filed a deposition and need you to sing this affidavit,” Seboko said, “declaring that you sold the Mercedes to Beko in lieu of severance which you felt he was entitled to. Please read it and sign it.”
“But I gave it to him as a gift since if was previously given to me by the Deputy Minister,” Lukas protested.
“That is irrelevant and you will not say any such thing to the judge or the prosecutor. All they are interested in is that at best this is a misunderstanding because you are a foreigner and at worst that Beko stepped of the line of his social standing and therefore needs to be punished and put back in his place. This is a very delicate issue.”
Lukas reluctantly signed the documents, lying in fact and perjuring himself in his own mind. “How can I explain this to Beko ?”
“There is no need to explain,” Seboko Thelebe assured Lukas, “Beko already knows what to do, that is to remain silent and show proper remorse.. You have to understand that this outcome is not in your hands, you are only a bit player in this production and you cannot accuse anyone of wrongdoing.”
“How long will this take until Beko is freed ?
“If we’re lucky and everything goes according to the script he should be back with his wife and six kids before the end of the week.”
“Six kids ?” Lukas said.
“You didn’t know ? “
Lukas took lodging at the Intercontinental where the bill was magically waved despite his protests. Confused and depressed he called Germaine and explained the day’s happenings to his wife. “I don’t seem to understand anything anymore. We lived here for eight years in a bubble and apparently completely misunderstood how society really works here.”
“Just do as the lawyer says, he knows the machinations of the system there. I miss you.”
Lukas was left in limbo for three days when he got the call from Sedeko to be at court room # 7 the following morning at 9AM. Anxious and full of trepidation Lukas dressed in a formal suit and tie despite the sweltering heat. Luckily the taxi had the air conditioning on full blast. Sedeko approved of his attire and told him to just listen and only speak when directly addressed. “And avoid all eye contact with Beko. Under no circumstances must you acknowledge him. Do I make myself clear ?”
Lukas was not used to this kind of play acting but he did as his lawyer said and looked straight ahead at a spot somewhere over the left shoulder of the large judge whose massive head seemed part of the black robe.
The judge asked the prosecutor what the charges were which he duly reported as grand theft of one grey Mercedes SL 240 belonging to his former employer, Lukas Meyers. The judge then deferred to the defence and Sedeko Thelebe outlined the facts as the affidavit stated, namely that a misunderstanding occurred and the automobile in question was actually a form of severance pay for eight years of service and that Lukas Meyers acted in good faith and according to the customs of his own country. We ask the honourable judge to consider the mitigating circumstances and set the accused free.”
The judge asked for a recess to consider the facts.
“All rise,” boomed the judge, “the court hereby orders the car to be returned to his rightful owner and the accused to be set free. This court is now adjourned.”
“What does he mean by returning the car to it’s rightful owner ?” Lukas asked, bewildered by the whole process that felt more like an ensemble play with everybody assigned a specific scripted role.
“What else to do with the car ? The judge righted a wrong and reversed an unfortunate process. That way everybody saves face and nobody did anything wrong. And here are the keys to your car.”
Luckas looked at Sedoko Thelebe dangling the key to the Mercedes at him.
There was a moment when the birds paused in their chatter, the clouds stopped moving across the sky and Lukas seemed to levitate. “You keep it, it’s my gift of appreciation to you,” Lukas said with a smile, while he stepped into the waiting taxi, leaving Sedoko standing on the steps of the national court house with the key still dangling on his finger.