Sunday, February 24, 2008

Didn't Think I Had It In Me

Masai markets are common in these parts. Roadside stands with the outside walls serving as easels for numerous large and brightly colored paintings of women carrying baskets on their heads, men and women dancing, etc. pop up frequently along the route to the major tourist attractions.

I hate shopping but this trip I felt some souvenirs were in order so I dug deep to what resolve I could and we headed to the nearby city’s Masai market.

We drive in and I immediately think of Santa Fe, New Mexico where Native American women (usually) are seated around the square with their blankets of silver before them. Here it’s Masai women with beaded everything displayed shukas (Masai cloth).

Once again the stall architecture (a la our food market) is employed to show off the kinds of things I often see at Cost Plus back home – statues of wildlife, masks, “ebony” carvings, batiks and more. And every vendor has a young man (usually) eagerly suggesting I check out what’s in his stall.

I have a few things in mind and we head where we see those items (which, of course, I can’t name here or it would ruin the surprise of those who will receive them). The man quotes a price comparable to what I’d find in the hotel/lodge gift shops – about three to four times what he’d sell it for if he knew me and maybe ten times more what he’d ask of a fellow Tanzanian (except they wouldn’t be buying this stuff to begin with!).

Suddenly, I’m overcome. I know he’s jacked up the price. I know it’s what he’s supposed to do in this setting and I know that my usual response is just to give in. But this time ... this time ... I haggle.

I cut his price in half. He says he’s going to lose all profit. I say, “But that’s what I have to give.” He tells me his hardship story and that he needs to do better. I tell him that I know I look like a rich “mzungu” but I am a volunteer, working for no money and that I have a limited amount to spend on my friends and family. He says, “Give me just a little more.” And I reply, “That’s what I’m offering and it’s ok if you don’t want it because I’m thinking any one of those guys standing in front of all those other booths will take this price.”

They gave me what I offered every time.

Except … for one woman and I’m glad because I love what I got instead. And one elderly gentleman whose teeth were brown and one seemed ready to fall out. He had EXACTLY what I wanted to get a very special man in my life and when I asked “bei gani?” (how much?) he quoted me the fairest price I’ve been offered by anyone in this country for anything! I was so shocked I didn’t bargain at all. In fact, I found something else to buy.

And finally, I had been looking for a requested item since I arrived. My friend, Beth, wanted some fabric and had given me some suggestions and even the cash with which to make the purchase. We had been less than thrilled with what we’d been seeing the few times we had a chance to look so my director, Jolene, had kind of taken this on as her special project. We still hadn’t found it.

The men at the end of the first line of stalls began their onslaught of me and already knew I knew a few words of Swahili. They greeted me enthusiastically and I didn’t even lie. “I’m not mzuri (good)!” I exclaimed as I feigned almost fainting. Suddenly, they dropped the hard sale.

“Pole sana, madam,” they offered a quick apology and then inquired about what it was I was searching for. I explained and rather than dig into their stuff to show me yet more “almost-but-not-really” possibilities, one guy became the spokesperson.

“You’re not going to find that here but in town . . . “ and he continued with directions. I was shocked.

Jolene brought me out of my shopping shock and stupor to tell me she had at least found an example of the pattern we were looking for and the woman she had been talking to unfurled a hand-painted, modern take on African art. The thing, I think, was EXACTLY what I think Beth will like. So I asked the woman how much.

I’ve not seen such honest, worn, resolution as I did on that woman’s face as she folded the cloth and said with absolutely no enthusiasm, “Fifteen thousand.” And you could tell she was about as eager to bargain with me as I was with her.

“That’s absolutely perfect,” I said and dug in my purse for the bills. She looked up. She smiled and she gave me the cloth as Jolene said, “See you did get a first purchase of the day!”

I found out that Jolene had liked some key chains she was selling but had declined once she determined the coins dangling were Kenyan and not Tanzanian. The woman must have had her hopes dashed slightly and I got to redeem the sale!

I walked away quite pleased with my purchases but especially with my performance. I don’t like the idea of haggling. I rarely do it and consequently usually bring home very few sounvenirs. I don’t like the system that has built up around tourism and the bad name some of us give others as we bully our way to what we want. Neither do I like the fact that because of my complexion, I’m a target for gouging.

But I love fairness. And so I treated it as I knew I should – fairly.

I told Jolene later that I have no intention of trying to cheat these folks out of what they need. Enough people from all sides do that to them on a regular basis. But I don’t want to be cheated either so I love it when the price I’m offered is a good one. I then asked if Jolene would sign an affidavit indicating she had actually witnessed my bargaining. A few of my previous fellow travelers are simply not going to believe it without proof!

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