Bargaining in Lusaka and a Deal with the Devil

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — One of the smaller inconveniences of life here comes from not knowing the real price for things.

“Offer something ridiculous — like a third of what they asked for and take it from there,” a friend told me as we walked through the craft market.

“Bargaining is expected, but remember this is people’s livlihood,” one guidebook scolds.

Vendors themselves seem divided along similar lines.

How much for the stone leopard book ends?

“I give you good price, a hundred and sixty thousand.” the man says, polishing it lovingly. That’s about 32 dollars.

I turn to walk away.

“One hundred,”

How about fifty thousand?




I walked away with two, for Seventy-thousand a few minutes later and was emboldened.

How much for the chitenge fabric?

“Twenty-thousand each.”

How about two for thirty?

“Two is forty, they are twenty-thousand each,” the woman responds frowning slightly. How could I have all this money if I can’t even do math, she is wondering.

The skirt?

“Fifty-thousand, but because its the end of the day, I give you discount, forty-five.”
the woman says in a rush.

How about thirty?

“Forty, please, please, please?”

Yes I felt bad. You said please, I said, as I took out the forty. If I had said please, would you have given me for thirty?

“Yes,” she said, “for thirty-five, but it’s too late now, you agreed to forty. God bless you.”

God bless you too.

It goes differently with speeding tickets I found out this week, when I had the honor of receiving my first one here. This was an honor, because it showed the progress I had made from the paralyzing fear that led me to inch down the roads, screaming curse words, lines of honking cars behind me.

Oh, no, I said, trying to bat my eyes to absolutely no effect. I didn’t even know I knew how to speed. What do I do now?

“You pull over there and pay 70,000 Kwacha,” the policeman said, pointing to a spot under a tree where several more policeman lounged.

This didn’t sound possible. Even the people who drive here can’t all walk around with 70,000 Kwacha — about 11 dollars.

What if I don’t have it?

“Then we book you,” he said smiling.

I have it.

I pulled over, while he roused one of the men under the tree, calling over “72,” — that’s how fast I was supposedly going — about 40 mph, I think.

The other cop came over.

“Okay, that’s one hundred and eighty thousand,” he said.

He said seventy.

“Yes you were going 72”

We did that two more times; who’s on first, and then I decided to clarify: He said seventy-thousand Kwacha.

“Oh, okay, we’ll give you the old rate.”

He wrote me a receipt for sixty-seven thousand.

That’s still not too bad, I said, when I recounted the incident to a British friend here. I told him about the time I got out of a speeding ticket back home by repeating, at the deputy’s request: “I’m a bad girl.”

The British friend winced, wounding me. When a British person thinks something is tasteless, that’s pretty bad.

Who would have done differently? I asked. At 20 miles over the speed limit, you do the math.


One Response

  1. Math AND traffic? I am flabbergasted!

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