Bartering 101 Posted on May 30th, 2010 by

In American culture the word shopping conjures up images of gossiping teenage girls clutching designer purses, and soccer moms pushing overflowing grocery carts through the isles of Cub-Foods with Junior sitting up front, screaming for a box of Coco-Puffs. In Tanzania, shopping is done a little differently. Sure, girls here, as all over the world, like buying the latest fashions and you can find mothers in any country purchasing food for the dinner table. It’s the way shopping is done wherein the difference lies. Many Americans like buying in bulk and keep enough food stashed in the cupboards to last a nuclear disaster. Refrigeration and stores like Sam’s Club make this possible. When you don’t have reliable electricity, or no fridge at all, you are less inclined to buy in bulk. People here more often buy as needed. You see people in the supermarket buying just a few items – a loaf of bread, a bag of sugar. In the States, when you buy something, the price is always greater than you initially think it will be because of taxes. Here, the price is always lower than the initial value because of bartering. This fact of life has refreshing and I think switching back to paying full price for vegetables in the State will not be a favorable transition. Learning to bargain is not an element of most young American’s education. The only time this skill is used is at summer garage sales, a relatively low percentage of the average shopper’s expenditures. So naturally, when I first arrived on this wonderful continent I was naïve bargainer. However, I was a quick study and I can now confidently navigate my way around any marketplace. This isn’t to say it was an easy subject to master. The most important part to bartering is knowing the true value of the good you want to purchase. This is very difficult when you are unfamiliar with the prices of the goods. You may know the average price of a gallon of milk or bag of potato chips in your state, but do you know the prices of these goods in Russia? Probably not. So when you first arrive you are very susceptible to anchoring (the belief that the first price mentioned is the closest to reality). This problem is further exacerbated by the colour of my skin. Much as many Americans stereotype Africans as being tall, Africans think all Americans and Europeans are rich. Consequentially, the moment a mzungu (white person) walks into a market, the prices increase twofold or more. Upon entering a market, a food market for instance, the first thing you see are the stacks of carrots, pyramids of tomatoes, and other arrangements of fruits and vegetables, the old umbrellas protecting the goods from the sun and the seller, usually a woman, sitting behind her foodstuffs. The first thing you hear is “Hallo, rafiki!” (Rafiki means friend in Swahili.) Each vendor vies for your attention hoping to get the gullible mzungu to pay inflated prices. If you stop to inspect their wares, they will say, “Good price for you, rafiki!” which really means ‘double price’ as any price you are given is nowhere near the real price that would be asked of any native Tanzanian. Even location within the market can affect price. On the edges of the market, where most Caucasian tourists buy food, the prices are even higher than those at the heart of the market where fewer mzungus wander. This prejudice pervades the culture and becomes irritating when you are continually asked to pay twice or thrice market value. It is true that many visitors to Tanzania are rich Caucasians going on safari, but this is a poor representation of the American or European pocketbook. There are also volunteers who are living off only a small stipend. I even know some Tanzanians who are richer in their own country than my family is in the States. Even knowing the real price does not guarantee you a fair transaction. Once you are given the initial price you may ask for half that knowing the seller has given you the mzungu price. But the seller will want to haggle more and you may still end up paying too much. It takes tricks like feigning disinterest, pointing out the poor quality of the product, and walking away to get a price worth paying. This process takes time and having to repeat the procedure becomes tiresome. However, arriving home with a fair deal is quite satisfying.


One Comment

  1. barter says:

    Bartering is not just a simple exchanges of services that anyone can offer. It is a broad topic that can be used to anything related to it. It should be think fully when we involve in such thing.