On Kenyan Bartering

by

The concept of a fixed fair price for a good or service has not taken a
strong hold in Kenya. Instead, barter, or as I like to think of it “Baloney”
is the preferred means of establishing a trade. If you intend to buy
anything outside of large stores or industry, expect to have a lengthy
conversation regarding how much paper and metal you are going to hand over
in exchange. The art of bartering or dickering is deeply subtle and varied.
There are a hundred techniques by which you can feign disinterest in the
item you actually want to buy. There are as many ways for the merchant to
sniff you out and size you up. Many people will tell you they find the
practice exhilarating and charming. Personally, I can hardly express how
much I detest it. In my opinion, how well one feigns concern for the health
of a complete stranger’s family should have no impact on the fair market
value of an item for sale.

Despite my frustration with this system of buying, I have little recourse.
For as a person of fair skin, the first price usually offered to me is
simply outrageous. A seasoned Kenyan barterer will tell you to offer one
fourth the first price, and that’s advice for the timid. Usually when you do
this, the merchant will likely exclaim, “Hai!” this being a sort of Swahili
equivalent of “Unbelievable, this person has no grasp of reality
whatsoever.” If they are a skilled merchant, they may stagger slightly as
though hit in the chest. They may have been so severely traumatized by your
criminal underappreciation of their wares that they have to walk in a small
circle to regain composure. Then they may suggest that you don’t understand
what you are trying to buy, or that you will starve their family; although
these are strong measures you may not see at first.

There are many expert barterers who will shamelessly bash away for a 50
shilling savings on what is no less than work of an artist who might very
well be starving. There are those who beguile with their genuine human
compassion and sublime language. There are those who aren’t interested in
anything particular and use process of elimination to find the lowest price
offered among competitors. Then there are people like me. I have two
profound weaknesses as a barterer: I know exactly what I want when I see it,
and I have a sense of shame. Luckily for me, I also have one strength. The
entire process of barter is so repellent to me that I frequently just walk
away in genuine disgust. This happens to look exactly the same as the
technique of walking away in feigned disgust at an offered price. The
majority of my barter purchases have been made at this final point of
frustration.

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