A few years ago, I was trying to sell a bike and had a short interaction with someone who claimed to be interested. He said he came from an African country and had some very unique shipping arrangements which involved me cashing a cheque, paying a shipper, and keeping the balance of the funds. I tried to have a conversation with the buyer, just for fun, but he turned out (act surprised!) to be a scammer.
419 is Will Ferguson’s 2012 Giller Prize winning novel which takes the reader into the world of the long distance scam, both from the perspective of the scammer and the scammed. Ferguson brings us into the pain that is caused when someone in the west is drawn into one of these scams, through an appeal to greed or compassion. It takes us to the other side as well, the striving to get ahead, the organized crime, the desperation and entrapment. The book shows us a country which has been exploited for its resources, its environment destroyed, losing its sense of values as its people try to exploit those in other parts of the world in order to compensate for the loss in their own.
The book is a great read. I wondered how accurate Ferguson’s description of Nigeria and the Nigerian experience was. He covers a large sweep of the country’s geography, and history, in the narrative while certainly doing nothing for Nigeria as a tourist destination. The story, however, unlike many novels that span continents, was very believable. I could picture myself in it, feel the sorrow of the loss of a parent and the desire to regain some of the dignity which had been taken away.
The popularity the book has gained by winning the Giller will also raise the awareness of these insidious scams, hopefully making the job of the scammers just a little harder. I’m looking forward to my next encounter with a Nigerian princess with thirty five million dollars and no one to take care of her, or even someone wanting to buy a bike.