Saturday, 21 November 2009

Bartering on the shore of Lake Malawi

Today I spent six hours bartering. Just outside our camp at Chitumba were a number of wood workshops where the likes of ‘Mr Cheap as Chips’, ‘Van Diesel’ and ‘Happy Pineapple’ produce some of the most beautiful carvings I’ve come across. Our driver Tim told us that this was THE place in Malawi to pick up wood and boy was he right! There were stunning wooden chairs intricately carved with the ‘big five’, elegant salad bowls and serving spoons, captivating sculptures of tocoloshi – a mystical evil spirit-type character, an effigy of which in Africa is used to ward off other evil spirits.

Mr Cheap as Chips and I sat down to discuss the price of a wooden chair he’d carved. I’d been around each of the small, wooden stalls to look at all the wooden chairs available and his were by far the most beautifully carved. His price for one of the largest chairs he had started at $65 and he was a tough guy to bargain with. With me I brought three items to trade: a pair of Reef sandals, a sweatshirt and a brand new tube of Colgate toothpaste.

In Malawi everything is traded primarily because the high import costs (the government impose a 100% import tax on everything that’s imported) drive prices up. Thus, any imported items such as toiletries, clothing, batteries etc. are in high demand, either for the locals to keep for themselves or to sell on.

Of my three items Mr Cheap as Chips was most interested in the Colgate toothpaste which was surprising given the value we associate with each of the items in the west. It took me two hours of hard bargaining to get the cost of the chair down to $45, Colgate toothpaste and a sweatshirt. The only problem remaining is to ship the chair to Australia but as long as it gets there in one piece, it’ll be worth every cent!

That afternoon I spent another 4 hours bartering on other items. Much of the time was spent laughing and joking with the locals, sharp intakes of breath on either side as new prices were suggested and long silences in which both sides pondered the value of the deal. It was utterly draining but a huge amount of fun and I managed to take home some amazing pieces of wood whilst lightening the load of my rucksack considerably by trading those items I’d yet to use!

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