True (W)African Sport: The Art of Bargaining

Jemi: You are soo cheating!

RealJemi: No, I’m not.

J: Really?

RJ: Yes. I think.

J: Didn’t you feed the same lines to the other fella from yesterday?

RJ: Yes…but, it’s not the same.

J: [Raised eyebrow]

RJ: What?! This interaction has the potential for something much more different. Much better. Much more…challenging and stimulating.

J: Doesn’t change anything. You’re still cheating.

RJ: Ei, why? Did someone patent the lines I’m using and hire you to police the rest of us? No? Well, last I checked, there was freedom of expression and association. So mind your own business.

J: What do you think they will say when they find out what you’re up to? Two-timing them the way you are.

RJ: [Mischievous grin] But who says they ever have to know?
And so it goes. The guilt-trip that follows the ritualistic love dance, mating call, whatever-you-want-to-call-it, that is West African price bargaining. They say everyone likes a good bargain. But what they don’t mention is that the true art of bargaining can be found in West Africa. So, consider this the ad that runs in the local newspaper after a gross omission has been made.

If you want true bargains, get out of Filene’s Basement and trek to Sandaga, Madina Market, or whichever your nearest West African market is.

Mind you, the operational word is market. Not mini-market or mini-marche. Shooting for the minis? You’re better off staying at Filene’s. They ain’t budging on the prices either.

If however, you want to hit the town, indulge in spontaneous and witty tete-a-tetes with strangers, and see how far flattery will get you, then jump aboard the bargain express.

Okay, that definitely sounds too PR.  Back to what we were talking about: the love dance. You can’t avoid it. At some point or another, you’re gonna have to get off your high horse and admit that the love (bargain) bug bit you. And you’re still falling.

True West African Sport (Forget Football)
If you’ve never been to West Africa or if you’ve spent a huge part of your life in the U.S. or Europe, this whole phenomenon might sound alien to you, but don’t worry, you’ll catch on soon enough…after overpaying for one, two, or three items of course. That’s the way they break you in. Been away from home for a bit and still in that constantly-converting-everything-from-one-currency-to-another-zone? They got a special kind of love just for you as well. Hey, what can they say? There’s a lot of love to share. 

It might sound unbelievable, but bargaining is more popular than football. Regardless of what you do, you can’t escape it. If you actually do, it means you’re overpaying for practically everything you’re getting, or you haven’t really looked for the bargain spots. If you’re cool with that – maybe you have more than enough to share or are riding on an abnormal (luxury) demand curve? – then quit reading. If, however, you would like to be introduced to a much more interesting way of doing business and experiencing W. African culture, read on.

Alors, here goes.

Pandora’s Box: A Bargain or Not?
Let’s have a story, shall we:
- Newbie enters market (that would be you). Newbie has newcomer written all over him/her (that’s your I <3 NY t-shirt giving you away) and is overly conspicuous (that’s you stopping to allow every single person to bypass you on that small path).

- Bargain professors (that would be the salespersons) notice newbie and figure (s)he needs to be taught a lesson (that’s your first (overpriced) buy coming your way). Newbie sees bargain prof coming with pandora’s box and expresses interest.

- Prof heads over, all smiles (that’s him sizing you up to determine how much to overprice) Newbie smiles too (that’s you thinking about how lucky you are to have chanced upon this item [forgetting that nothing truly worthwhile comes easy and quick]) and asks how much it costs. Prof assumes a serious stance and mentions 10,000 CFAs.

- Newbie (you haven’t been in the ECOWAS region for a while) does a quick calculation of the amount and arrives at $25! For an entire outfit? Not bad! Newbie pays, prof smiles, hands over pandora’s box. Everyone’s happy. Only…you just missed out on a bargain!

The Art of West African Bargaining

So, backtrack.

From living in Ghana and spending some time here in Senegal, I’ve found that there’s somewhat of a general rule to bargaining on prices at a local market. Considering the fact that 90% of the time I get what I(a friend) want(s) for exactly the price I’m((s)he’s willing to pay or even less, and considering the salespersons usually end up saying “You, you know money eh. You’re my sister/friend!” or something to that effect, the general rule has proven its worth.

Whether its for taking a taxi, purchasing jewelry at the beach or getting that African print material from the fabric section downtown, you generally have some leeway with how much you pay for something.

General rule (and considering how much I try to stay away from math, I’m only writing this once, so pay attention  ): Take amount proposed by salesperson, divide by two and then divide one half by two. (I believe the mathematicians call it dividing the total amount (proposed) into quarters.)


Tip 1: Decide on how much you’re willing to pay before you start talking/bargaining - Remember to keep it to yourself, or if you’re with a friend who’s gonna do the talking for you, keep it between the two of you!- THEN apply the general rule. Only, make sure whatever you propose is a couple of notches BELOW how much you’re really willing to pay. That’s your bargaining power.

Let’s have a real-life example:
- You want to take a taxi 40 minutes out of Dakar. You stop the taxi driver and tell him where you’re going.

Tip 2: If you have an accent not native (foreign) to the country you’re in, you might wanna cover it up as much as possible. It’s a glaring “newbie” sign. And please, if you’re a local who has an “acquired” foreign accent, save both you and the driver/salesperson some time and money and just speak in your local language.

- Driver proposes 10,000CFAs as the price. By now, you should know/have already made up your mind that you’re not paying more than 3,500CFAs or 4,000CFAs if you’re pressed for time. Here’s the kind of exchange that would ensue:

You: 10,000CFAs? C'est pas vrai! D'ici a ...? (10,000CFAs? For real? Just from Dakar to…?)

Driver: Oui, c'est le prix. Aucune bleme? (Yes, that's the cost. Any problem)

You: Bah, oui (Of course). C’est trop cher! (It’s too expensive! )

Driver: Bon, vous donnez combien? (Ok, how much will you pay?)

You: 2,000CFAs

Math fact >> You took 10,000CFAs, divided it by 4, which is 2,500CFAs and went down a couple of notches, allowing yourself a bargaining power of 500CFAs. Since you’re really willing to pay 3,500 or 4,000CFAs, you have a REAL BARGAINING POWER of 1,500CFAs or 2,000CFAs.

Driver: 2,000CFAs? C’est trop petit (2,000CFAs? It’s too little). Je pars (I’m leaving)

You: Ey, attends (hey, wait). On parle, non? (We’re talking, no?) Alors, diminue le prix un peu (Reduce the price a bit)

Driver: Bon, tu es ma soeur, alors donne-moi 5,000 (Ok, you’re my sister, so give me 5,000)

Math Fact >> He halved the price. 10,000/2 = 5,000CFAs. He realizes you know (of) the rules and he’s not gonna get a huge overprice on you.

Tip 3: Once they play the sister/brother/friend card, you can use the same card as well. For example: You said I’m your sister, so be nice to me and reduce the price eh. However, it’s advisable to use it as a last resort.

You: Okay, je te donne 3,000. (Okay, I will give you 3,000)

Driver: Non, c’est pas bon. D’ici a…c’est trop loin. Il y a l’emboutaillage. (No, it’s not enough. From here to …. Is too far. There’s traffic)

You: Mais 5,000 c'est beaucoup eh. Chaque jour je prends cette route et je paye 3,000, ou 3,500 maximum. (But 5,000 is too much eh. I’m on this route every day and I pay 3,000 or a maximum of 3,500)

Tip 4: Even if you’ve never taken that route before, you need to let them know that you know how much the charges are. And in order to know, you need to ask around. No, not from the taxi driver! He's tryna see how far he can go on overcharging you, remember? Ask a local - a friend or family you're staying with, a neighbor, etc. Asking questions is part of travel 101. You won't know until you ask.

Driver: Ok, paye 4,500 et on part (Ok, pay 4,500 and lets go)

You: C’est trop pour moi. Toujours je paye 3,500, alors c’est tout que j’ai avec moi. Eh, je suis ta soeur, eh. (It’s too much for me. I always pay 3,500, that’s all I have with me. I’m your sister, am I not?)

Driver: (Most likely silent) [Congrats! U used tip 3 and checkmated him on the sister/brother/friend card!]

You: Okay bon, je prends un autre taxi. (Okay, I’ll take another taxi)[Turn away from the taxi and walk a short distance.]

Driver: Bon, donne 4,000 et on part. (Okay, pay 4000 and let’s go)

You: Sigh deeply. And enter the taxi. Bingo! You just bagged yourself a bargain :)

Tip 5: This entire exchange should take no more than 5 minutes. If it takes anywhere past 10 minutes, then you have yourself a stubborn salesperson. Find another one.

In Conclusion...

Alors, there you have it! The art of bargaining. Please, this is supposed to be a light-hearted exchange. No fists involved. Go with the flow and if you’re not ready to have some fun with it (if you’re in a hurry or a bad mood), please pay the overpriced amount and let everyone have some peace of mind.

That said, I cannot guarantee that things will play out exactly as this post depicts. For instance, if you’re a girl trying these tactics on a female salesperson. Not sure what it is, but for some reason, the girl on girl action just doesn't cut it. LOL. But seriously, its different for different people, and yes, even I have overpaid on some stuff (I paid 4 times the amount for an outfit my first time in Dakar and then vowed never to overpay again! The way it pained me eh!) and you will most likely too at some point. But don’t dwell on it too much. (It took me MONTHS to get over that swindle) You’ll make up for it, and in due time you’ll be a master bargainer. Like me :)

Tip 6:  While bargaining is a norm in West Africa (and probably other parts of the continent as well), you shouldn't use that as an opportunity to pay less than the value of an item/service. As the case may be, the greater percentage of Africa's population lives on less than a dollar a day and so most likely than not, the sale of the day makes a huge difference in that person's life or that of his/her family. In this regard, try to be fair and follow the golden rule: do unto others, what you would have others do unto you. Or, as my favorite author puts it in the story below, pay the right price.

Paying the right price (Paulo Coelho)

 Nixivan had invited his friends to supper and was cooking a succulent piece of
meat for them. Suddenly, he realised that he had run out of salt.
So Nixivan called to his son.
'Go to the village and buy some salt, but pay a fair price for it: neither too
much nor too little.'
 His son was surprised.
 'I can understand why I shouldn’t pay too much for it, Father, but if I can
bargain them down, why not save a bit of money?'
 'That would be the sensible thing to do in a big city, but it could destroy a
small village like ours.'
 When Nixivan's guests, who had overheard their conversation, wanted to
know why they should not buy salt more cheaply if they could, Nixivan replied:
 'The only reason a man would sell salt more cheaply than usual would be
because he was desperate for money. And anyone who took advantage of that
situation would be showing a lack of respect for the sweat and struggle of the man
who laboured to produce it.'

 'But such a small thing couldn't possibly destroy a village.'
'In the beginning, there was only a small amount of injustice abroad in the
world, but everyone who came afterwards added their portion, always thinking that it
was only very small and unimportant, and look where we have ended up today.'

Bargain Tips, Anyone?
If you already consider yourself a pro at W/African bargaining, do share some of the more eccentric experiences. Did you ever have a bargain go wrong? (Like after you decide on the price, exchange whatever service/item it is, and when its time to pay up the salesperson tries to double cross you) Which tactics worked the best? Ever been to an African country where there isn’t a culture of bargaining? Let us know! In the meantime, happy bargaining!

P.S. I can’t believe I talked so much math in this post!

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