One of my favorite parts of Ugandan life is the markets – and especially bargaining. It’s a love/hate relationship, really. Some days are so much fun – joking with the vendors, bantering back and forth and getting a good deal. Other days are not fun. Those are the days when the men are yelling crude things at me and when no one will negotiate with me because they will straight up tell me that I should pay more because I’m white. I hate those days but luckily, they’re rare.
Last Friday, I went to a local craft market. In the middle of the market, there is a tent full of ladies selling beautiful hand woven baskets. As I approached, another muzungu (white person) was finishing a purchase. Her Southern drawl filled the space as she confirmed the price with the woman – a price that was almost four times what I ended up paying. I shook my head and thought, “someone needs to give these people lessons in how to bargain here”.
As I was bargaining to get my nails painted the other day, my good friend laughed and said, “the student has become the teacher!”. I am insanely lucky to have incredible Ugandan friends who have opened up their lives and culture to me, including teaching me how to bargain. With that, I thought it’d be good to write down some Do’s and Don’ts of bargaining in Uganda. That way, when you come visit, you won’t look like that Southern lady and I won’t laugh at you.
-Take a Ugandan friend with you, especially the first time. A big part of bargaining is knowing how much you should pay for something. If you don’t have someone knowledgeable with you, then ask someone before you go what you should pay for that boda ride/vegetable/basket/whatever. If you don’t, you’ll pay what we call “muzungu prices”. You may be ok with that, but I’m not. See below for why.
-Learn basic greetings in Luganda or the local tribal language wherever you are. This really is a must. If they start out in English with you, greet back in Luganda. That tells them that they’re not dealing with a tourist but someone who knows the culture enough to know the prices. The more you can learn, the better. Truly, one of my favorite things is when I approach a vendor, their face lights up because they think they'll make bank from this muzungu and then I greet them in Luganda and their face falls realizing that they can't cheat me. I inwardly laugh every time.
-Be patient. Bargaining takes time. Why? Because you’re not just buying a product; you’re building a relationship. In a relational community culture, this is pertinent. Take time. Greet them properly. Ask about their day. Go back and forth about prices.
-Always be very respectful. Respect is a big part of this culture. Find out how to be respectful and act accordingly. For Americans, this usually means “talk quietly”. Seriously, we all know we get louder in groups and that’s seen as rude here.
-Stick to your guns. If you know what you should pay, don’t falter. Be stubborn. It will pay off. However, know when it's ok to compromise a little. But, a little. Not a lot.
-Watch the body language and tone of the vendor you’re talking to as well as watching your own. Imitate the locals around you to see how they interact with the vendors, watching their tone and body language. Be able to note when the vendor is truly at their last price and won’t go down any further. This one just takes time to learn.
-Not negotiate. I’ve heard a lot of different reasons why people don’t want to even negotiate at all. This is about building a relationship. If you don't negotiate, it communicates far more than you know.
1. It says that you have so much money that you can pay whatever price they give you. You look foolish for paying such ridiculous prices. Also, if you don’t negotiate from the beginning, then they know that you’re willing to pay that and won’t go down in price in the future. Save yourself time and money in the long run.
2. It shows that you don’t want to have a relationship with them – that you don’t want to even talk to them. That's disrespectful and rude.
3. It ruins it for the rest of us. Seriously. If they see that this white person is willing to pay that price, then they will expect me to. And I don’t want to. So, seriously, negotiate. Do it for me and every other white person that will follow you. Because if I hear one more time "ah but your friend paid me this", I'll go crazy.
- Go alone. Again, either go with someone who knows what they’re doing or ask about prices to someone you trust ahead of time. It’s an overwhelming experience no matter what. Don’t make it harder for yourself.
-Be disrespectful or rude. Hopefully you’re not rude to your friends so don’t be rude to the vendors.
-Bring large bills and expect to get change. Unless you’re in a big store like Shoprite or Game, do not give large bills (50000 or 20000 UGX) and expect change. Most vendors won’t have it. That Southern lady gave them a 50000 UGX and you should have seen their faces. Stock up small bills for times like this.
If markets and bargaining aren’t your thing and you live in Kampala, you’re in luck. There are grocery stores where you can buy most of what you can find in the market. For Ugandan crafts, there's Banana Boat. You’ll pay considerably more in both places (and I mean, considerably). I think you lose out in experience, culture, relationship and a lot of money but that’s because I love the market experience. Some people don’t.
Ok, so now you’re ready! Bargain away!