I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.
Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.
My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.
It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.
Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.
Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.
I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”
Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!”
These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”
An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”
The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).
Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”
What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.
She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”