Petty Traders

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Petty traders, street sellers, are there to make a living when other employment is not available.

Submitted: September 06, 2016

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Submitted: September 06, 2016



Before I set foot in Tanzania, I was told during a briefing session that when shopping or purchasing anything, you have to bargain, ‘or else the locals won’t respect you’. I took this information on board and wondered how I would go at bargaining, because I had always been a negotiator, but not so much of a ‘bargainer’. Certainly the New Zealand culture was simply to pay the ticketed or asking price.

During my first days at Sanawari, I needed a clean, straight, one and a half metre long stick to mark as a measure for setting up my tree nursery. Although I’m a bit of a scrounger, I couldn’t find anything suitable, which is no wonder because fallen branches and other random pieces of wood material are snapped up by kids gathering fuelwood. I ambled down to the main market in Arusha because I had seen a trader’s stall where there were whittled sticks and cane baskets as well as an assortment of other wooden items.

‘Karibu.’ The man said, which is a welcome to look and hopefully purchase but in those early days I didn’t even know to say, ‘Thank you’, which after all is good manners at any time. I found a suitable stick, my first Tanzanian purchase! The amount the man wanted for the stick was trifling, but with my new-found-purchasing-enthusiasm was going to beat this fellow down pricewise, the result being that the man eventually sold the stick for two thirds his asking price! I puffed his chest with importance at this victory as I handed over the money. But walking back up the Sanawari road, I reflected that here I was in a third world country, hopefully to do something that might better the place, and I beat a man down for a piddling amount! Who needed that money most? Bargaining or no bargaining, I retraced his steps and topped up the payment to the bewildered trader. While I never asked him what he had thought, there was always respect between us with our dealings and greetings over the next few years.

As in most third world countries there are touts selling whatever you might imagine and a good many are prepared to rip you off if they can, but not all of them. The fruit ladies who try to sell the fruit they carry in baskets atop their heads can come in for some abuse from tourists and expats. Most of them are mothers, trying to scrape up a living for their families. They have to buy the fruit they sell and they have to pay a premium because for their trade the quality must be top-notch. So with experience, I knew very well that I could buy fruit of a little less quality, for a fraction of the cost at village roadside stalls. The women knew I knew, but still they would crowd around my car when I was in town, calling me Babu - Grandfather, because they knew I would buy off one or other of them. In return they would keep a lookout on my parked car.

The touts/youths selling souvenirs are usually the most aggressive of the rip-off merchants, but there was one guy who realised I was a long-term resident and so he did not bother me. We spoke regularly on the street, and in those early days he chased the nuisance guys away. In return I took our visitors to him and they might or might not buy something from him. He also knew that I knew what most things were worth. Anyway, the guy disappeared for a few months, which was a mystery to me, but when he did return, he did so minus an ear! He had been in a car accident! As a gift, he gave me a Maasai stool, that aren’t actually exclusive to Maasai, he knew I wanted one, we had spoken about on for some time. The stool remains one of my prize possessions, because this was not a tourist Maasai stool, but from the guy’s home! It had been in his family for generations!

The big tourist complexes are by no means petty traders, they pay safari drivers to stop there with carloads of tourists. The labelled price for a Maasai blanket was forty US dollars, but there was an old fellow, a petty trader, who sat on the pavement at the back entrance to the main market who sold the very same blanket for ten percent of the complex’s price! I would not allow anyone visiting us to buy a Maasai blanket, because I wanted to have fun with the old man. He and I would barter hard, and often people would stop to watch, and when I had beaten him down to a bare minimum price, we would shake hands and I paid the original asking price. It was a game we both enjoyed playing, but the old fellow knew that quality differed and he made sure I received a good one. It was good Swahili practice for me as well.

Amongst other things, I was establishing a few village water projects and found it was worthwhile to negotiate prices with the larger merchants. However the lager merchants did not sell standpipes: metre long one inch galvanised pipe, threaded at each end to fit unions and taps. I found petty traders who made them using stocks and dies, some traders though were pettier than others. One day I was in a hurry and needed four standpipes, but none of my contacts had any prepared. The same was true at my last port of call but youths, who do a bit of running around for a ‘small consideration’, said they would run around the corner and get some for me. They loaded them in my car and I thanked them and paid as required. On the site, I found the pipes to be second hand, rusty and absolutely unusable. Of course they looked shiny and good because they had been sprayed with silver paint!

Mama Upendo was in town and I had arranged to pick her up, but before we headed home, she wanted a bag of charcoal so we stopped where some youths were selling it on the roadside. I had agreed to pay for the charcoal, so I negotiated the price. The negotiations were friendly and easy because the youths were aware Mama Upendo was in the car, but when they came to load a bag, I noticed they had chosen the smallest bag of all there!  I casually pointed to the largest and they happily loaded it.

‘Mzee, you are a real Tanzanian!’ One of them smiled in acceptance.

The early advice I received on bargaining wasn’t quite right and sometimes the anthropologist in me kept quiet while I took things in. The locals always say, ‘Punguza kidogo.’ Which means, ‘Reduce a little’. So a little is reduced and usually, if it is produce a little is then added as discount. Aggressive haggling is not the norm. And as for respect, bargaining has nothing to do with respect, respect is earned after it is dished out in the first place!

It wasn’t all roses though for me though, I was mugged for my phone and pick-pockets tried their luck on me, but I’m left handed, which is useful when they are dipping into your right hand pocket!

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