Bargaining in Africa

Posted by on December 12, 2012

The African Bargaining Ritual

Buying things in Africa – Bargaining Style

Most of us, who live in the West, miss out on one of the most delightful forms of entertainment known to man …the ancient ritual of bargaining.   In the west most everything is pre-packaged, pre-shrunk and pre-priced. The result is that we miss out on a lot of just plain fun.

The ancient ritualistic dance of bargaining in Africa is one of the fun things of living here. If you are visiting-the moment you land in Africa, go through immigration and customs and reach the street the dance of bargaining begins.  Taxi drivers will mill all around you wanting to be of service, shouting out their prices, grabbing your luggage.   Those drivers would be very disappointed if you simply agreed to the first price they offered you instead of looking at them while saying….”What do you think I am – A tourist?”

Bargaining gets into your blood, it becomes the great African addiction.  It covers every aspect of life in Africa with a few exceptions such as restaurants, gas stations and stores where things are on a price list or pre-priced.  Go however into the treat of all treats “The great Owino Market in Kampala with its 30,000 vendors and you can bargain to your hearts content for goods and services that meet your every need.  Nothing is pre-priced or pre-packaged; everything is subject to negotiations.  Let the fun begin…

Most westerner’s will go into a state of shock as they enter a place like Owino Market in Kampala, the Tuesday and Thursday Masai Market in Nairobi or the Friday Craft Market in Kampala.  We are not used to tens of people shouting at us, hawking their wares, services, prices and so on.  We might even make the mistake of paying a price that is far higher than what we could get it for and miss out on the fun of the interaction between buyer and seller something that is absent as we buy things in the west.

Should you be going to Africa soon, it is best you get an introduction into this wonderful dance of bargaining so that when you get there it will be a lot more enjoyable and profitable for you.  To begin with, leave your natural inhibitions behind, do some role-playing where you learn the art of making gestures and creating bargaining facial expressions of sadness and disappointment, also voice fluctuation in order gain the best price in the situation.  On top of it all, don’t dress like the typical tourist in your Banana Republic finest, that simply gives you away as a novice and open to exploitation.

Below you will find some of my memorable, personal experiences in various situations of African life.  Hopefully they will give the head start into becoming a great African negotiator and bargainer.

Buying Things:

  • I was sitting in an outside restaurant with a BBC Reporter from Leeds in the UK, having a nice Chinese dinner watching the activities on the street around us in the Kabalagala area of Kampala when a young boy approached us selling some kitchen knives.  I did not need any knives but could not resist the temptation to bargain and have some pre-dinner fun.  The boy asked for 15,000 shillings (1997 about 15 dollars).  I counter offered with 5,000 shillings.  His face became sad and he said 13,000 and that was his best price.  I came back with 5,000 shillings and he looked at me with eyes that were ready to tear and said that such a price was not fair and he had to eat.  I asked in turn if he would sell these knives to his mother at such an unfair price as 13,000.  “Sure, my mother would pay such money,” was his reply.  I came back with “You think because I am a mzungu (westerner) I have lots of money, just because my skin is white does not mean I am rich, underneath our skin flows the same color blood, red, so you should give me a fair price of 7,000 shillings.  Back and forth it flowed, my reporter friend thoroughly enjoying the scene before him, so much so, that he recorded it for a later broadcast on BBC.  That night I became the proud of owner of a new set of knives that I did not need, but the housekeeper, Ruth enjoyed using the next day.  The food came as I finalized our deal and I invited the young boy to eat with us, something he enjoyed, all of us felt enriched by the moment and he received his 15,000 shillings.
  • My son Ryan was with me as went shopping for some souvenirs at Tuesday Masai Market in Nairobi.  It not really a market with stalls and things, but simply a hill by a roundabout just near downtown where African Crafts are sold to mostly tourists.  It is called Masai Market but most of the people selling their wares belong to the Kamba tribe known for their crafts but there will also be some Kiisi selling soapstone carvings, Turkanas and a few Masai with their walking sticks, necklaces and bracelets.

This was my son’s first visit and he did not know what to expect, but I told him to let me do the bargaining otherwise we might not get the best price.

The place was jam-packed with sellers of carvings, gourds, trade beads, batiks and everything else Africans could turn into hard cash.  Just walking around amidst the shouts of “Papa, buy this or that,” gets the blood flowing something one does not get while walking the wide aisles of Wal-Mart.

I was a regular at the Masai Market and recognized by some of the sellers.  One woman in particular offered me some delightfully carved candle holders and other items.  She named a price and I responded with a gasp.  Having some acting in your background can be of great help in bargaining, rolling your eyes, a gasp here or there, throwing up of hands, are all techniques greatly appreciated in Africa and I can assure you, returned in like manner.  The woman was a delightful Kamba who enjoyed the fine art of bargaining and we were rolling along and getting nowhere, when I got out the ultimate weapon in bargaining…the cash I was I willing to pay.  I showed it to her and she said, no, wanting the higher price…and then part two of the ultimate bargaining tool…”walk a way.”  Only once did the seller not come running after me and I knew I had gone too low, but on this day…money and goods were exchanged and contentment was felt by all.

  • Linoleum was needed and the best place to buy it was Owino Market in downtown Kampala.  Off I went into the belly of beast of bargaining.  This is not something for the novice, but for the shrewdest of the shrewd.  Here you can find anything from second-hand clothing to tools, from medicine to food, from radios to TV’s and more.  My task was to buy 20 meters of linoleum and off I went to the section where the sellers of such items dwelt.  At the first stall I was able to obtain a good and fair price per meter but as the young man began to measure out my linoleum I noticed something rather strange, he was using 80 centimeters instead of the 100 which would be a full meter.  He was short-changing me, I smiled and allowed him to do his thing and then said. “Now I need 20% off of the price since you shorted me by 20%.”  The surprised look on his face told it all, it was charming, but no deal was consummated and I walked by with my full 20 meter roll a few minutes later and we laughed at one another.

Kido Kidogo – Just a little something:

Not only does one need bargaining skills for goods, but in dealing with everyone from the police to immigrations officials.  Salaries in East Africa are quite low and most officials try to enhance them by getting a bit of kido kidogo…a little something from the people they deal with.  It is the cost of doing business.

  • I made an illegal u-turn in Nairobi returning a rental car on my way to the airport and three policemen pulled me over.  I made the fatal mistake in telling them that I was in a hurry to catch a plane to Kampala.  They had me.  The next thing I knew, I was on my way to court and that could take the rest of the day.  So with two policemen in the car I stopped and turned to them.  “I have a problem and maybe you can help in this problem.  I have a plane to catch, you have things to do – how can we make everyone happy.”   Fifteen dollars (5 dollars for each official) later I was on my way to the airport. (Since Mwai Kibaki came into power in Kenya things are beginning to change.  People are refusing to pay kido Kidogo and even chasing police and taking the bribes they have collected as has been reported in “The Nation.”…amazing)

Bargaining is dealing with people, it is not task orientated but relational.  It involves grace, kindness, a bit of humor, cunning, acting and a lot of westerners feel uncomfortable doing it and rather pay the full price and be on their way…”They do not know what they are missing.”

It is not something you do gingerly. It is not like putting your toes into the water of a pool and think that you have gone bathing.  It is diving into the process and taking it in fully, enjoying the moment and most of all the process.  I hope you have an opportunity to put some of these things into practice for yourself.  Let me know how it goes.

Even with British Airways:

I walked up to the British Airways counter in Kampala.  My luggage consisted of suitcases, wrapped tables and chairs, drums and much more.  I placed it all on the scale and prayed for grace.  The limit was 70 pounds a suitcase going to North America.  I knew I had lots more.

The young woman behind the counter looked at my ticket, took my British Airways Gold Membership Card and then looked at the scale.  She looked again and then turned to me and said, “You are overweight.”  I looked at her in astonishment, “Me, overweight?”  “ No, not you but your things are overweight by 60 kilos, you will have to pay.”

Once more, for the last time the ancient dance of bargaining was entered into.  Like the elders of old bargaining for the price of a bride, so I too began to bargain using my skills refined for some seasons.  I told her that I was leaving Africa, not to come back and I wanted to take part of Africa with me.  I was taken things that would remind me of Mama Africa.  She understood, she smiled and said.  “In that case, I am making an exception, have a nice journey and thank you for flying British Airways.

One of the enjoyable things about living in Uganda is that one can enter into the ancient ritual dance of bargaining…enjoying it – from Kampala…jon

“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.” John Hemingway – African Journeys


Jon Blanc

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