By John Kariuki
“Brother, I have no change for that note!” is his standard reply if you give him a Sh500 and Sh1,000 bank note. This shopkeeper-cum- newspaper vendor has real guts. He tells buyers to guard his shop while he goes around looking for loose change.
Karafuu, which means a deal in street slang, always begins with the cobbler outside his shop. “Wina cinji ino? (Do you have this change?) The cobbler, as usual, shakes his head in the negative. Karafuu then tries the butcher and the hotelier (chai and mandazi fare, though) and finally the pub down the block.
The pub owner, Dickson, gets a chance to lament about the Mututho Law and how it has robbed him of profits. However, barring this, one cannot help seeing the stingy nature of village entrepreneurs with giving back change.
I remember buying my daily with a thousand bob. Karafuu whistled in surprise. “Ngai Baba, ino ikuma kuu? (Good Lord, where will this change come from)?” He looked at me intensely, scratched his greying beard, and sighed. “No problem. We shall wait for the soda, beer or cigarette people,” he said. The soda, beer cigarette distributors did not come that day. No problem. Karafuu said they would come the following day. And indeed all these distributors from the nearby Nakuru town came as predicted. Karafuu changed Sh6000 shillings into smaller denominations. Besides me, there were five other customers waiting for their change.
Amazingly, Karafuu had not recorded anywhere what he owed each of us. In the village, the ability of taking in new faces quickly is an asset for local entrepreneurs. In the course of one recent holiday, a terrorist story broke out as is happening nowadays with the Al Shabaab extremists. That Monday morning, a bomb blast shook Nairobi. The following morning, all newspapers sold out at Karafuu’s place. As I turned to leave grumbling, Karafuu called me be back. He pulled out a newspaper from under the counter, winked at me and announced: “Ino niwe nguigiire! (I had kept this one for you).” I did not bother to find out why he kept it for me. I have never been more thankful than that day.
When at home, I also frequent a pub owned by Dickson. This bar proprietor also has the same change problem. However, he solves it more creatively. I once paid for beverages and as often there was no change in the till. “Take two more beers and I will give you back Sh500!” Dickson coaxed me. I did the arithmetic and realised that I would still owe him two shillings. However, he quickly expressed his desire to ‘waiver’ rights to demand the coins from me.
On many occasions I have witnessed Dickson at his peak brilliance. This man often cajoles his customers to take boiled eggs, which he sells in his pub so that the change arithmetic is simpler. Others are persuaded to take sticks of cigarettes to balance off the odd shilling. Yet many village hustlers leave a thousand shillings and drink on subsequent days by a subtraction arrangement until the money is over. It is common to hear Dickson announce to puzzled customers: “If you take one more beer, a stick of cigarette and a pack of condoms, just in case, your money would be over!” After hearty arguments, his logic and depth of understanding his clients often prevail.
Sometimes I forget how much change is at Karafuu and Dickson’s places and give the two wily villagers the benefit of doubt.
As every urbanite knows, it pays to carry all the money that one will need over the holiday in the shags in small denominations. I have discovered that a tidy pile of ‘blues’ and ‘ashus’, slang for twenty and ten shilling coins, respectively, is handy when in the village. Village bums and louts routinely pester all newcomers for ‘something small’ with which they can buy tots of killer drinks. The occasional brush with the likes of Karafuu and Dickson and their ingenious ways is what makes a stint in the village memorable.