The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Art of Barter and Meaning

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“I give it to you for 25”
“That is too much, how about 10”
“No, that would not be good. Make it 25”
“10,” I say.
“What else?” she asks. I am bartering for a cheese grater, it is made in China, and the first of any quality I’ve seen since moving here. We’re bartering in 1000s of Cedis, so 25, means 25,000 cedi, or $2.50 US. I look at what else she has, mostly kitchenware, I ask of a few items, get quoted an outrageous price, and then we go back to it.
“My three children eat a lot of cheese…15,” meaning I’ll pay 15,000 cedi.
“18…let me make 2000…18”, and then looking around one last time, I say OK, and she smiles, puts it in a thin black plastic bag, and we’re both happy. I have a cheese grater, and she makes 2000 cedi.

I’ve thought about bartering a lot since moving here, I practiced it even more, wondering if it is fits with our purpose. I mean by and large Ghanaians see Americans as walking, breathing ATM machines, and so I think that on one hand, I’m spending 10 minutes haggling over 20 cents, and I’m thinking: half a postage stamp, tax on a Starbucks. “Help the ole girl out I think, throw her the a couple dimes,” and so I agree, but on those days I have the energy for it, I’ll haggle over everything.

On those days I must be careful not to cross the line. It seems to me that one can get best price, but often it comes with its own price. Sarpei, our Public affairs officer at the Embassy, tells us that vendors will never sell you something unless the deal works for them, but then I remember a story the former Carol Glanzman told me about buying a skirt in Spain. She had bargained hard…a price was agreed … money exchanged… the skirt rolled up and put in a backpack, and walking away she hears the woman say “You have a black heart,” she looks back at the woman, it feels like a curse, “nothing good will come of this.”

I’ve watched people bargain for best price with such aggression, that when it is done, there is a feeling of violation, as if we’ve broken some sacred trust, refused a gift, crossed the line. In those times, the taxi driver, or street merchant won’t even look you in the eye, they just want you to go away, to be done with you. It is then I wonder, was ever about the money?

What if the negotiation was about something more important than cost? What if the bartering was about meaning, about creating a shared story to tell later? “Story is the language of the heart,” claim John Eldridge in his book Epic. So maybe the haggling is about speaking to the heart. I know that when I come home from the crowded market, I want to tell the story of each item. Days later, when Suzanne and I are walking by the same stall, I point it out to her, and say hello to the merchant, she remembers me. I want Suzanne to share in my story. That almost never happened when we went shopping in the states. We would just go to the big box store, pick it up, pay for it and leave. There was no story, no emotional weight, no greater meaning, and I’d never see those people again.

I’ve noticed in packing up a house to move, as we’ve done five times in the last 12 years, the time consuming work comes from remembering the story. It is as if some things have an emotional weight that must be remembered, and relived and packed away so that it is not lost. I’ve noticed that when I pack up the big box store items, they have almost no memory. They are like wonder bread with all the nourishment lost in the processing, not story.

Eldridge wonders if that is part of the problem, the reason that life feels like a movie we’ve arrived to 45 minutes late. We’ve lost our story. Our hearts longs for their native tongue—tell me a story—and when you can big box buy it, you bring it home empty, without meaning, and could just as easily give it away, or sell it at a lost and be no poorer.

My friend Eric the taxi driver keeps asking me the same question, “You mean there are no markets in US?” We’re usually stopped in traffic, and young men are offering chocolates, fried plantain chips, towels, fresh fruit and vegetables. He looks at me and asks “There are no peoples selling tings at side of road?” He can’t believe it and wants to come to US to see for himself. “Where do you buy it?” Eric asks. “In a store?” he says answering his own question. “Yes,” I think, but it costs much more, and doesn’t come with a story.

Lori, of our missionary friends, Jeff & Lori, who have been here 11 years say “You can get best price with out the barter, but they won’t be happy about it.” What taxi drivers, or market ladies want to have is a relationship, to learn something about you, it isn’t about the money, it is about the story, yours and theirs becoming connected. And so the vehicle used is the barter, the negotiations, the haggle over 2000 cedi or twenty cents. That is the price of a story, I guess, and my heart is listens well, and longs for more.


Blogger Hunter said...

During my '60s Peace Corps service in Nigeria a shopkeeper explained that in a good bargaining session, the "winner" adds back a bonus (called a "dash" there) to the "loser". If you can't tell which is which, you are not paying proper attention -- and the dash should be given or received in the spirit of play, not as a mechanical obligation or privilege.

I have found that this perspective made bargaining much easier and more enjoyable. It is very satisfying when a competition can be transmuted, even partially, in and exchange of gifts.

3:55 AM, August 28, 2006  
Blogger Pastor Steve said...

Thanks for the help. There are several vendors that I go to each week and they always dash me something, but then I don't always bargin with them, or if I do, not that hard. Mostly I like them because of the quality and easy of transition, and of course, their smile.

10:31 AM, August 28, 2006  

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