Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mzungu prices

Last summer when we took our first baby steps in Uganda, we were counseled about haggling. Bargaining. Bartering. The main idea: By all means, do it. If you don't they're nearly offended, we were told. And after witnessing bartering as a social interaction when we bought our furniture, I believe it. Here, with the exception of the kind of things you get receipts for, you barter.

Interesting side note: We have also had a number of friends mention a phenomenon for people buying things for their employer. The employee makes the purchase for x amount, and the person writing the receipt says, "For what amount should I make out the receipt?" As in, how much would you like to skim off ? A friend of ours was actually behind one of his workers in line a couple of weeks ago when this happened to his employee. True story.

But I digress. The reasons for bartering also include my rather expensive skin color. You see, many a salesperson will double or triple their prices for a fair-skinned maiden like myself--a mzungu price. In fact, we've been told, when the U.N. moved their headquarters to Entebbe not long ago, they didn't barter. They bought things at whatever prices they were given. After all, these people are impoverished, right?! But unfortunately, the result has been prices driven sky-high, influencing the entire region's economy. The price for a bag of flour, for example, has now doubled. Short-sighted moves like paying more than something's worth, it has been explained to me, can have ripples that actually end up hurting the poor.

So--I've been bartering a little in the marketplace. For the most part, one can get a lot better prices.
But it can be a little tricky to know when I should barter, or, say, figuring out when a seller is bluffing or really can't back down on a price.

Maybe that explains why I was a little hurt the other day when I got home from a homeschooling co-op meeting. My wonderful housekeeper, Oliver, had gotten some items from a local seller who was recommended to me.  When the seller told her the price, she said she wouldn't pay that mzungu price. She wanted the real price. Which my friendly seller then gave her. I've been in this house for six weeks now getting these items from this seller who was recommended to me from other eMi women. No one had recommended I barter, so I figured I shouldn't, and his prices wouldn't be inflated for unsuspecting mzungus.


Well, you can probably tell by my recent posts that I have been feeling my foreignness lately. Even Oliver and I joke back and forth about the silly things mzungus do, which for a few days I've had to stop. It's just a little too close to home. Or should I say far away?

But then yesterday happened. That's when two nice guys from the power company, the source of a sizeable portion of mzungu frustration, showed up at my gate to read the meter. Odd, because we'd just gotten a (confusing) bill the day before. But they were there to cut off my power. Apparently the people living here before had not elected to pay their bill. Since our bill had arrived with a large, and now we understand erroneous, credit the month before, we hadn't paid said bill either. Gratefully, the very kind technicians acquiesed to Oliver's protestations that this was an error. But I had twelve hours to pay, they said. Understand that this means going to their office--you can't pay online--with a large sum of money and two very different bills and a notably pale-hued face. I felt confused, embarrassed, and angry as the exchange in Luganda ping-ponged back and forth between Oliver and the technicians.

So I brought the bill to Stephen, a local in our office, to help me understand. You'll need to go there and sort out the bill, he explained.

It's at that point I felt crocodile tears rolling down my cheeks. "I'm afraid they're going to treat me like a white woman," I whispered, embarrassed even more to be crying. Let's see how much money we can get out of her, I could hear the fictitious office personnel thinking. Not a fair stereotype on my behalf, mind you! But a fear, just the same.

I suppose we all have prices of some sort to pay, alonside the blessings, for the ways we look.

Epilogue: Very thankfully, I didn't have to go to the electric company. One of the local office staff, Semei, went on our behalf as he has done in so many other ways. Our power was not shut off. If it had, it wouldn't have been the biggest deal on earth (after all, we only have it 60% of the time anyway, right?) And it was good for me to reflect on what it's like to be a minority, or just what God asks of us when He tells us to be strangers here on earth....And to be fair, also upon reflection, it was also good to recognize the effect one's hormones might have on emotional stability. Ahem.

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