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Friday, December 18, 2009

How much is it worth?

How much is the Congolese cup worth? I'm sure the local Congolese traders would value a deck of playing cards much more than one of our newspapers, however.

In 1976, after graduating from university, I signed up for an overland truck tour of Africa. Twenty mostly young people (I was 23) rode in the back of a Bedford truck through the Sahara and the Congo, arriving in Nairobi, Kenya about three months later. (I continued on my own to South Africa via then-Rhodesia, setting the stage for my true life-changing adventure two years later, when I returned to Africa and found employment on The Bulawayo Chronicle for 18 months as Rhodesia turned to Zimbabwe.)

As we drove through what is now known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo (but then was called Zaire), guides told us that the local population, especially pygmy tribesmen, eagerly wanted western conveniences like mirrors, pop bottles and the like. They would gladly trade fresh pineapples and other tropical delights.

But little did I know that I had the most valuable currency around, a somewhat tattered deck of playing cards.

At one stop, I pulled out the cards, and a group of local young men gathered around to engage in the fiercest bidding war I had ever seen. Finally, I counted my loot -- a genuine monkey-skin bow and arrow, an incredibly hand-crafted guitar, again made out of monkey-skin and local wood, and several other objects, including this little cup with a monkey tassel.

It seems I had discovered the ideal status/value symbol in the African jungle.

Alas, most of my African artifacts are lost or buried in some storage box somewhere, but I still have the little cup, a couple of arrows, and many memories.

I had learned the relativity of value in trade. We can presume what people (our potential clients) want -- but do we really know what is in their hearts and minds, especially if we are crossing cultural barriers.

And if we can risk crossing these barriers, and experiment with value perceptions, we may find that things we think of as worthless have incredible value, and things we think are truly important, aren't.

I'm not sure how much my African artifact is worth in U.S. or Canadian dollars, but the experience has proven to be nearly priceless.

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