Travel: My socks for his giraffe mask: Michael Edwards battles with Masai warriors in search of a good barter on a busy Kenyan beach

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The Independent Travel
The final afternoon arrived. President Moi's stern visage stared out from my remaining Kenyan banknotes, imploring me to boost the local economy. Two thousand shillings were burning a hole in my pocket.

You are forbidden to take more than 100 shillings, about pounds 1, out of Kenya. Yet changing them at the only official agency at the airport is a bureaucratic nightmare. Queues are long, service is distinctly leisurely and supplies of foreign currencies are frequently exhausted.

I decided to seek a souvenir of Kenya, an exotic focal point for my lounge and a starting point for reminiscences of safari, giant prawns and sundowner cocktails. Leaving the security of the hotel compound I set foot on the beach for the first time in my two-week stay. The uniformed guard's gesture with his baton seemed to say, 'You're on your own now.'

The wide stretch of firm, white sand between the hotel gardens and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean is a no-go area - in the sense that you cannot read, sunbathe or move without being pestered by vendors. Clamouring traders, often armed as warriors to attract attention, besiege the Europeans. Inevitably, many visitors choose instead to buy their souvenirs from glass- shelved, air-conditioned gift-shops with high set prices.

As soon as I put one toe on the beach a voice announced: 'Hello, I'm Captain John Barnes.'

He was a gap-toothed seafarer wearing ragged shorts and a pristine Liverpool Football Club shirt. He invited me on to his dhow, a medieval Airfix kit held together by string. I declined.

I slipped past a fruit seller, but a pretty young girl blocked my path, collecting money to lay a pipeline to her village. She told how her mother walked 12 miles a day to collect water, a plastic drum balanced on her head: I rejected her pleas, rather guiltily, as her presentation seemed too slick.

Another soft voice stopped me. 'My friend, perhaps you have something in that bag to trade?'

I fell silent. What did he want? Marijuana, hash, dope?

'Perhaps you have some socks in there?'

He offered a set of giraffe-head salad servers, almost certainly seconds. Nearly all local carvings are produced by 3,500 craftsmen from the Akamba tribe at a village north of Mombasa. In low, dark, palm-thatch huts they saw, chisel, gouge and polish in conditions that would have shocked a 19th-century factory reformer. Scratches and the crude shape suggested that these servers were the product of a novice.

The salesman was interrupted by a shrill ululation and a man attempting a slow-motion triple jump. It was a trader dressed as a warrior doing a brief war dance: he wanted to interest me in a bracelet. I made my escape as the two salesmen argued about poaching customers.

Behind the ranks of an ebony army of 2ft tall Masai warriors I found what I was looking for. Masks. Row after row of them with delicately carved giraffe, elephant and rhino headpieces and solemn eye- and mouth-holes.

Obeying the first rule of bartering I set my limit at 1,500 shillings. When Abdul suggested 3,000, I offered 1,000. He would not drop lower than 1,700. I stared at a flotilla of glass-bottomed viewing boats hovering over the shoals of angel fish by the reef. I could not bring myself to look into his eyes.

'Two hundred shillings is not much to you,' said Abdul, 'but I have a wife and two children.'

If he were a rich man he would have three wives. I tried to ignore the appeal to the injustices of world economics, and started walking slowly towards afternoon tea. Somehow 200 shillings had become a ridiculous matter of principle.

'1,500 shillings and your socks.'

We shook hands. My grubby socks had a proud new owner - given the climate in Kenya, socks seem to be a conspicuous-consumption status symbol - and I had salvaged my pride.

As the taxi left for my evening flight, mask in hand, I saw the Masai warrior/bracelet salesman at the Bamburi Beach bus stop trying to look inconspicuous. Hard as he tried, he and his shield and spear could not merge into a vivid yellow shelter advertising Knorr soups. Carrying an 18-inch-high mask, I knew how he felt.

Michael Edwards spent 14 nights at the Travellers Beach Hotel at Bamburi Beach, eight miles north of Mombasa Island. Cost: pounds 720 from the Thomson Worldwide brochure (081-200 8733).

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