Our third day in Zimbabwe, we sat with new colleagues, all American, and gabbed about our backgrounds and prior travels. As the conversation strangely turned to a few loud men discussing their bargaining techniques, I became less than impressed. These over-confident men bragged about their skills lowering the dollars and cents they paid to people living farther below the poverty line than they could ever get coming from a country like America. I felt like I was listening to a conversation of Wall Street CEOs figuring out how to scrape even more cream off the top. What difference did an extra dollar or two make to them, while a dollar could buy that vendor’s entire family dinner?
People back home ask me all the time how we shop and how we deal with "the bargaining thing." It's a hard question to answer, and I have certainly evolved. At first I approached the markets differently than many of our new, well cultured, colleagues. Though Kurt and I were scraping by with student loan debt and an unexpected mortgage payment that followed us to Africa at the last second, concepts no market vendor could possibly understand, I just decided that I would either pay what the vendor asked, or move on. No hemming and hawing, no sly negotiation, no insulting their products. Just a yes or no. It seemed decent. And I was happy. And it worked. The problem was, I usually never bought anything.
After I’d been in Zim long enough, it became clear. As my housekeeper and a number of others have explained to me, there is a Shona price. There is a white person price. And if you open your mouth to let them hear your accent, there is an American price. “Americans are the most guilty, so that is why this works on them,” my housekeeper Ziwone had laughed. Racial complications aside, she went on to explain that it was insulting to someone when I did not bargain, but just asked a price, said “okay,” and walked away. “No one will accept a price that will make them go broke. Bargaining is in our culture. It is more rude to ask and walk away than to try to negotiate.” Meanwhile, I watched as I came home with tomatoes twice the price of my neighbor’s, and one head of cabbage when the housekeeper would have gotten two. And forget about souvenirs.
Two years later things are different. I’ve lived in a bargaining culture that has slowly worn me down and subconsciously evolved my thinking while I have been busy looking at chotchkies and curios. I now have a method, which usually involves asking for the price of two other things before I find out the price of what I really want. I know what things cost from the source, and what the mark-up is. And I know how to unapologetically ignore the pushy vendor that will not get out of my face. Somehow when I wasn’t watching, I went from being the “guilty” American to being a savy shopper proud of saving a dollar here or there. I patted myself on the back for being thrifty while living on one income… And suddenly I realized it was quite the same way I had done while living in the US.
I’ll admit it. When I lived in the States, I would occasionally drive to Walmart or a different grocery store across town, all to save a dollar. Though I always preferred to support smaller businesses and local (often more high-quality) products, there were times my wallet spoke louder than my ideals. I was happy to find a bargain. And it was how I made ends meet.
But recently our visiting guest, Kyle, unintentionally reminded me about something very important that I had nearly entirely forgotten after living in an African bargaining culture for two years. I watched as Kyle, absolutely uninterested in buying a product, chatted with vendors about their process and goods. I watched as he kindly negotiated, and I remembered what it was like to be a soft skinned American wanting to remember my privilege. And I remembered once again that a dollar does make a huge difference to someone who has very few.
The bargaining thing is more personal; I have to say no to someone’s face instead of to a numb Mega-Mart shelf. There is inherently more guilt associated. But there is also more humanity. The Mega-Mart shelf is eternally more comfortable; there is a price and you take it or leave it. But what we forget when we shop like that is that there is still a little man or woman making the item. He/she’s just a few more steps removed, so the potential guilt at knowing someone is being paid pennies for their hour of work is farther away from our conscious thought. The Mega-Mart shelf may be an easier option, but as Kyle so wonderfully reminded me, there is also something very powerful about the human interactions and learning that come from the process of bargaining face to face.
I’ll be honest. As with so many things, when it comes to the bargaining thing I am still uncomfortably dancing around to find my footing on a happy medium. It is easy to become desensitized when you find yourself in a different geography and, over time, evolve for better and worse away from your original values. Wanting to represent your family’s budget smartly in contrast with wanting to give a small local vendor their fair share can feel challenging… But the more I think about it, the challenge exists anywhere I live… whether in America or Africa.