Arriving from the United States to live in Africa, you find that there are cultural practices, different from your own, that you need to learn. In Anglophone West Africa, to which we traveled after leaving Dakar, perhaps the most pervasive of these is dash.
Anglophone West Africa is a “tip for service” culture. Of course, in America you were accustomed to tipping for certain services: the waitress who served you, the bellboy who showed you to your room, the valet who parked your car. That was a tip for specific services culture. Anglophone West Africa was a tip for all service culture. We went to Ghana.
Our first acquaintanceship with dash came when Donanne and I went to Accra’s Cable & Wireless office to send a dispatch to the Monitor’s offices in Boston. I left Donanne there and hurried off to an interview. Donanne was simply to hand the typed dispatch to the C&W operator and make sure he would send it.
“How’d it go at Cable and Wireless?” I asked when we reconnected.
“It was strange,” she said. “I gave him the story, but he didn’t go off with it. He waited around as if I was supposed to do something more. But I didn’t know what. So I smiled again and thanked him again and finally he went off.”
I had met the local Reuters man in Accra and asked about this.
“He wanted dash,” the Reuters man explained.
“What’s dash?” I asked.
Here is where it gets complicated. Now in the early 21st century it’s easy to explain dash as merely the linchpin of a tip-for-all-service culture. But in 1969 when we made our first acquaintance with dash, the times – and certainly the Americans – were much more judgmental than today. And so dash was not presented merely as a tip. It was described as a bribe.
And sometimes it was. If a government minister helped an executive to land a multimillion dollar contract and expected $10,000… Ghanaians might regard it as dash, but it was hard for Americans not to think of it as payoff, a bribe.
But in this case it was only money to help speed a dispatch on its way. Did that have to be considered a bribe? Well, if you’d been told that Anglophone West Africa was steeped in corruption, that it tainted every aspect of life, it was not hard to consider tipping the C&W guys as bribing them.
All the proper resistance to bribe-giving was animated in me. Certainly the correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor would never participate in such shenanigans.
I was frequently in and out of Accra in those days because elections were being held and, more importantly, military rulers were permitting a restoration of civilian government. Journalism is competitive. So it distressed me to see my colleagues from other papers submit their dispatches to the C&W operators with a ten-cedi note paper-clipped to the first page. The C&W guys grinned gratefully. It was obvious that dashed dispatches got better and more immediate service than ones that were submitted with only a smile and the urging, “You’ll get that out first thing, right?”
I began to think about bribe-giving. This, I was certain, I could not manage with finesse. Or sophistication. My guilty conscience would cause me to mishandle the transfer of cedis to the C&W operator. Finally I screwed up my courage. I need not have worried. The C&W man accepting my dispatch had extraordinary sensitivity to the possibility of cedis coming his way. When I bashfully held out my hand, he extracted the cedis from it with an experienced move. He gave me an enormous grin. Suddenly I was his new best friend and my dispatch got super first-class service. I thought: Why have I waited so long?
Now that we are living in less judgmental times, it’s easy for me to regard dashing the C&W guys not as bribing them, but merely offering them a tip for service they would render me. Call that casuistry if you like. I prefer to think that it was just an example of the contrary practices of two different cultures rubbing against one another. It should have been no surprise to me that when I adhered not to the cultural practice of late-moralistic America, but to that of tip-for-all-service Anglophone West Africa, things would go more smoothly for me.
Frederic Hunter has written two novels and a collection of short stories about Africa: www.FredericHunter.com.