Bartering in Africa – bring socks, and other tips

I’m pretty good at bargaining.

From a young age, my mother schooled me in the art of pretending I didn’t really want something, walking away, and knowing when to give in and pay up. I even developed my own trick:

1. Pick your item and lowball it, haggling it down. (Let’s say you get it down to 20 for example.)
2. Pretend you’re also interested in something of similar value.
3. Ask for a deal on purchasing both items. (Let’s say you get two for 30 instead of 40.)
4. Get rid of the second item.
5. Demand the lower price for your first item. (You already know they can let go of it for 15.)
6. Don’t budge, and walk away if they don’t give it to you.

It’s more than a badge of honor to get a great deal; haggling is a truly primitive survival skill — one that you’d be able to use in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s like being able to start a fire or make a compass out of scrap materials (all you need is a sewing needle, a piece of cork, a small magnet and a cup of water). Furthermore, we use it in the business world all the time, whether we’re bargaining for a raise or a house.

Bargaining with guys like the above gentleman outside of Victoria Falls in Zambia is a whole different ball game. The reason for this is that currency isn’t limited to cash. Currency can be the rubber band around your wrist.In this market, and in many others like it all over Africa, the men working in the shops come from villages with few sources of income. Their land is unsuitable for crops, so they can’t farm. What they can do is weave, carve and make all kinds of beautiful objects you’d never find at home (at least not without a thousand-percent markup — minimum).

For men like these, who work all day in the shop, access to basic essentials like pens, shoes, socks and even rubber hair ties is extremely limited. Even if they make enough cash to buy them at full price, going and buying them can be a long, inconvenient trip — and you, the tourist, are likely to have access to nicer stuff than they can get. That’s where the bartering super-skill comes in: a well prepared traveler like you should know that your best bargaining chip may be a bag of socks to trade.

If you’re going to Africa, you may already have considered bringing school supplies and other basics to donate, but also consider hitting up your dollar store for some essentials you can use in place of currency to buy gifts and souvenirs. To you, it may seem like an unfair trade, but everyone benefits: the goods you have access to are more valuable than currency to some markets, so the shopkeepers are happy to trade with you, and you get to save money. All you have to do is make a little room in your suitcase, and you can be an amateur importer-exporter.

Just don’t get too carried away, and play within the “commercial goods” laws.

Here are some ideas for things you can bring to barter with in Africa:

  • Socks
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Hair ties and clips
  • Underwear
  • Shoes
  • T-shirts
  • Toothbrushes
  • Razors
  • Hand mirrors
  • Bandages

The list goes on and on. Places where it’s appropriate to whip out bags of trading goods are pretty obvious; often, store owners will ask you for things of this nature outright. If you’re in a market or shop where all the goods from multiple stands are rung up at one register, it might not be kosher, but almost any situation where you’re dealing one-on-one with a merchant is fair game for trading.

Just remember: what you don’t end up trading, donate to a local school, or at least leave it with your hotel and ask them to give it to someone in need. You can buy another bag of socks when you get home.

[Photo by Annie Scott.]

My trip to Zambia was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.