Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The World Cup soccer tournament is going on right now in South Africa. Tanzanians, the men in particular, are following the games keenly, even those whom I never thought of being interested in sports. It's a good game for playing in a country like this with lots of space and little money for equipment.

However, I think the real national sport is bargaining for the price of goods. This may be carried out in many situations, and Tanzanians are master players at it. I suspect they find it both a pleasurable activity as well as a survival technique in a largely subsistence economy that has so little cash flow. I have seen Tanzanians spend time haggling over the equivalent of less than ten cents.

Not only do wazungu (Europeans / foreigners) like me find bargaining awkward and uncomfortable, we are perceived as having big pocketfuls of money. That perception increases the stakes and the level of interest considerably. At the end of the day it's not uncommon for wazungu who have been, for instance, to the market to have a vague feeling of having been cheated.

After almost a year of living in Tanzania I am still adjusting to this practice. As far as whether to get upset about it I try to keep in mind several things.

First is that in the U.S. even though we expect retail prices to be the same for all customers, that is not necessarily the case between businesses. I learned this as a neophyte freelancer who constantly had to grapple with the question of how much to charge clients and in what way. I had, for example, one client who was willing to pay significantly more than the "market price" for my computer services.

Back here in Mtwara we have found that for many goods that are widely available, at any point in time there actually does exist a price that is commonly known and paid. The trick is to find out from locals what that price is. White rice, for instance, uniformly sells for 1000 shillings per kilogram. This removes much of the uncertainty around recurring purchases such as foodstuffs and other household items.

And the reality is that Diane and I do have possessions and income that is far beyond the reach of most Tanzanians. The possessions include not only expensive items such as a laptop computer and a printer but even very ordinary things such as pocketknives, watches, and durable water bottles. The other day I lent a simple magnetic compass to a colleague who teaches geography. She knew about the concept but had never handled such an instrument before.

Our income consisting of teaching allowances from the school and monthly stipends from our organization would put us way below poverty level in the U.S. But here we eat really well, hire a friend to do some of our weekly shopping, have electricity, and pretty much every evening at home check email, log on Facebook, and read an article or two on the New York Times website.

It's good to keep things in perspective. -Earl

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