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Bartering in Kenya

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How to barter for better prices in Kenya

I don’t like to think of myself as a nervous traveller. Wary and cautious perhaps but not nervous, but it was with some trepidation that I grabbed my towel and headed down to the beach outside my Nyali hotel for a swim. There were 3 very good pools in the hotel, I was told, why should I want to go to the ocean? There were men down there. Locals known as the “Beach Boys” (yes, go ahead and hum California Girls while reading the rest of this article, just don’t let it get stuck in your head) that would try and swindle me as I swam, or so it was inferred. Always a water child and unwilling to miss a chance to swim in a new sea I wasn’t going to let this stop me. I’d just say no, right? Couldn’t be that hard. After all, they wouldn’t really follow me out to the water, would they?

As soon as my bare foot hit the sand, they were there. “Come see my shop,” they cried as they pointed to a blanket on the sand filled with wooden carvings of giraffes and Maasai masks. The women were there too, lines filled with hand-dyed sarongs streaming in the breeze. “Come, come and look at my goods!” I waved my hand, no, no, I’m just here for a swim. Maybe it was because I was standing in front of them in a bikini that clearly left no room for a hidden stash of cash or bank cards, but they didn’t pressure and left me alone. Well, after extracting a promise from me to come back and see them later. Sigh. This did however leave me time while I was swimming to observe this group of seaside traders as they interacted with the tourists and each other. Each carried a notebook and a pencil, for what reason I couldn’t yet fathom though I was pretty sure it wasn’t for tax purposes.

Kenya beach

So later that afternoon, a bit of cash and husband in tow, I was greeted like an old friend as I returned to this little seaside mall. A crowd gathered around but when I solemnly promised to visit each and every establishment in turn they were satisfied and left me to my browsing. Not undisturbed browsing, mind you. All it took was for my eye to settle a bit too long on any particular ware and the boss of that blanket was on me like a wasp to ice cream in July.

“You like?” he smiled as he picked up the carving an elephant and put it in my hands. Elephants have always been a favourite of my husband’s so we were on particularly dangerous ground here.

“It’s nice,” I said in what I hoped wasn’t too committal of tone. “Are these tusks ivory?”

“Oh yes! Those are ivory. Ivory from the elephant…”

I stooped to put the carving back on the blanket.”We don’t want them if they are real ivory.”

“No! Those are not REAL ivory! They are chicken bones, you see?” He removed one of the splintered tusks and pretended to gnaw on it as if it were a chicken leg before putting inserting it back into the elephant’s face and placing the creature in my hands once again. He flipped open the mysterious little notebook he carried in his shirt pocket and wrote down a number too large to indicate any form of currency — or so I though. He pointed at the number with his stubby pencil. “It’s this much.”

I shook my head firmly. Not a chance. We hadn’t paid that much for dinner last night. “No thank you.” We turned to walk away.

“No! Wait!”

I had expected this. Of course he would want to bargain, but what I hadn’t expected was for him to thrust the notebook and pencil at me.

“Here, you go.”

“I go?”

He pointed to the number that he wrote and then to himself. “I speak. “ He nudged the paper and pencil back to me. “Now you speak.”

Let me stop to point out at this moment that most of these traders spoke perfectly good English. It wasn’t their first language, of course, but they were certainly fluent enough to bargain in it. But that would, of course, be against the rules of the game. And a game it certainly was to them!

I wrote a far more reasonable number under his, which he crossed out with a dramatic flourish and a big smile. He tried again. Then I tried again. Eventually the numbers came closer together and I was the proud owner of a wooden and chicken bone elephant.

Now I am not a fan of bargaining. I am very convinced that my trip to Tunisia, for example, would have been much more enjoyable had I learned a few choice words in Arabic before I travelled. But by the time I ended up with the elephant, 2 tie-dyed sarongs and some sort of unidentified wooden bird I realized I was enjoying this as much as they were. It was more a pastime than a chore and thoroughly entertaining.

Beach at Nyali

It all went well until the day before our departure when the same gentleman who had been repeatedly trying to buy my husband’s shoes approached him again. It’s not that my husband was particularly attached to this pair of shoes. It was just that unlike the obviously practical woman I am, he had only thought to bring 2 pairs with him on holiday and as such he quite needed them. But this time, ha! This time we were prepared!

“Hello, my friend!” he clapped my husband on the back. “How much for your shoes??”

I winked at my husband before springing our little trap. Out of my beach bag I pulled my own hardback notebook and a pen. In all seriousness I turned to a blank page and wrote down a number that was probably not far off what a night in the hotel cost us then handed him the book.

“I speak then you speak.”

His face broke into a wide grin as the crowd of merchants quickly gathered around laughing. The ceremonial words had been spoken. I was one of the Beach Boys now, firmly welcomed into the fold. Not necessarily a dark and secretive brotherhood but still it was a pleasure to know I belonged.

When the trade for my husband’s shoes was finalized, hand were shaken, good-byes were said and we turned to head back to the hotel and to finish our packing when one last call turned out heads.

“Wait! How much for the notebook!!”

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Filed under: Africa, Kenya

About the Author:

Cindy is an ex-pat American who lives in the UK with her charming English husband, overly clever toddler and pudgy cat. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, crocheting, creative writing and might even one day pick up a few miscellaneous hobbies that don’t start with the letter C. When not in the kitchen or at the computer you can probably find her dressed in velvet, wandering castles and dreaming of days gone by. Visit her blog at Medieval Moods, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter. has written 12 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.