Holidays mean waakye and walking around the house gloriously doing nothing. Unfortunately, not this time. I had to meet a friend at Rawlings Park, right in the heart of the chaotic Central Business District. I’ve never enjoyed the busyness of the marketplace, nor the bargaining that goes with trading. This meat to some is definitely my poison.
Within minutes, we got what we were looking for. I suspect I paid way too much for it, but this was no time for regret. I couldn’t wait to retreat from the engulfing crowd. It wasn’t too soon for me. We were headed to Tema Station, weaving our way through the traders, porters and shoppers of Accra. And the underground con artists too.
Soon after we passed the hockey stadium, we saw a group of six men gathered round a rickety table. Curiosity had me firm within her unyielding grips. What were these men selling? Money was quickly changing hands. A smile lit up my face. I was hooked. This gambling game was one I’d only heard about, but had never seen being played in the streets.
Sometime in the nineties, when I was a naïve student at Ridge Church School, my friends one Monday brought a piece of string tied in a circle to class and jumbled it up, asking whoever dared to stick a pen into any of the gaps created. If the pen was trapped by the string, you win. If not, you lose. Simple. Apparently, in the previous night’s edition of Akan Drama, this game, “Ajana One, Ajana Two” or something, was played. So here we were, innocently playing it the next day at school till it got boring and we went back to talking about video games and other people’s sneakers.
These memories came flooding back. I dragged my reluctant friend along. A man in a denim shirt, whose face was contorted in concentration and determination, held the pen. He had just placed a confident bet of GH¢5. The dealer pulled, the string slipped freely around the pen. The man had lost. He hit his head in frustration. Perhaps, he smelled victory was near, because he placed another bet. He might as well have tossed the cash into the gutter.
But how could anybody lose? It looked so easy! One passer-by was given the opportunity to have a go. The man in the denim shirt placed a bet of GH¢10 for him. The dealer pulled. The string was trapped around the pen. He’d won! He was offered another try. Would he get greedy? The string pulled freely into the dealer’s hands, and just like that, he’d lost his winnings.
Everything around that table screamed “Scam!”Was this just bait for petty pickpockets? Perhaps, the whole point was to gather unsuspecting patrons and rob them blind; both of their money by playing, and of their possessions as they played.
Without warning, the dealer turned to my friend and offered him the pen. “It’s free,” he assured us. Free. I learned the power of the word early in my copywriting career. He shook his head. Certainly, at that moment, his integrity was higher than mine. I looked closely at the dealer. “Free?” I quizzed. “Free,” the man in the denim shirt repeated. I suspected that the two of them, if not the whole gang around that table of sin, were travelling tricksters. But what had I to lose?
Securing my phone deep in my pocket with one hand, I took the pen. The dealer skillfully jumbled the string in a quick motion. I took a steady look at the coiled string. In there, only one of the gaps would hook the pen. The rest were all sure losses. I confidently made my pick. The dealer looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’ll give you four times any amount you bet right now if you’ll play again.” I knew I’d won and could easily win again, but I declined. I’m no gambler. He pulled slowly. The pen hooked it. I had just made four times what I’d bet: nothing. They looked at me with sheer admiration. “Try again!” they urged. Not a chance. I pulled my friend away, leaving them to find their next potential victim.
Later, a friend confirmed it was a scam. He too had seen a group of men around the same table once, throwing money about, enticing greedy young men into their vice. Some hours later, the roles had changed, and the one who was losing earlier on was now the dealer, reeling in the hard-earned wages of their unsuspecting prey with a string and a pen.
In your travels, have you witnessed any other scams around the stations of Accra or wherever? I’d love to know how they worked.