I have always been fascinated by what you might call the “asymmetrical con”.
That is the con in which no one is killed, injured, or gets unjustly cheated. It is one reason I love the TV drama, Leverage.
The big powerful people engage in grand corruption. The “small” men and women engage in cons.
Thus, the state of a country’s con industry is quite revealing about how the society is evolving.
I am in good old Uganda; the fair nation Winston Churchill called “the Pearl of Africa”.
I was talking to people who are good watchers of the country’s ways. We got round to chatting about a popular East African subject — the ever-growing excesses of our weddings.
Two new developments in Ugandan weddings grabbed my attention. For a long time, many wedding couples would open their presents, only to find empty boxes.
Some would be stuffed with newspapers, others with stones. This development puzzled Uganda’s marriage trade for a long time.
Recently, the mystery was solved. Turns out it was the wedding reception crashers doing it.
They figured out that no matter how determined the wedding committee was to keep the party crashers away, there was one type of person who would never be stopped at the gate: The one who came bearing a big “present” wrapped in expensive-looking paper (note the operative word here is “expensive-looking”, it doesn’t have to be expensive).
However, because it is very easy to detect that someone is carrying an empty box, they stuff it.
A few stones making noise can sound like expensive China that has been badly packed.
So you pick an empty box from the supermarket, buy a cheap gift wrap, borrow some cellotape, grab old newspapers, and you have a fail-proof ticket into the most exclusive wedding.
Then, in Uganda, betrothal (better known as introduction) ceremonies are big affairs. And they just keep getting bigger.
Matters have reached a point where introduction parties have “delegations” numbering over 1,000.
Not surprisingly, they have become the place where the groom must make his most dramatic impression.
As happens with these things, the reputation of the groom is as important as that of the future in-laws.
Many families want the world to know that their daughter is marrying “somebody”, a law-abiding voter with a well-paying job and prestigious address.
As a result, a con has developed in Uganda that draws grooms into conspiracies with their future in-laws.
At these introduction ceremonies, the groom will look for the right moment to blow away the folks who have assembled.
After getting the nod that he can have the girl, he does his thing. If he is fabulously wealthy, he will unleash a house as a present to his future in-laws. But if he is one step below that in the food chain, a second-hand car will do.
So he will conspire with his future wife and mother-in-law and stage a car give-away. He will go to a showroom, borrow a car for half a day, and take it to the introduction ceremony.
There, at the appropriate moment, the announcement will be made that the car is a gift to the prospective mother-in-law for bearing such a wonderful daughter.
There will be ululations all around, but it is all fake. However, the purpose will have been fulfilled.
Both the bride-to-be and her parents look good because they are getting a serious son-in-law; and the groom-to-be also shines because he gives the impression he is a man of means.
With the ceremony done, the car goes back to the showroom. So what story does the mother-in-law tell if asked about the car?
Simple. She can say she sold it because at her age, she didn’t want to blow away her pension maintaining a vehicle.
We have not yet reached the “post-industrial” society level of countries like Japan.
I am told that in Japan, because many families scatter and it is almost impossible to get them together again for something like a marriage ceremony, fellows rent fake brothers, sisters, relatives and friends to fill the family chair at weddings.
When I look around the East African Community, the race for this kind of ultimate wedding con of the future is really between two countries — Kenya and Uganda.