In America, items sell for the price attached to them. But in Ghana, much of what I spend requires negotiation – the 50 cedis asking price for the batik hanging on my office wall (for which I paid 20 cedis); the 20 cedis cab quote for the fare someone cautioned me should be 8. And I pay more than the asking price – a cab driver quoted 12 to go a next junction; I offered 15 to take me where I actually wanted to go. A shop keeper wants 2.50 for a set of coat hangers; I offered her 5 for the hangers and plastic bin that I wanted (which I discovered later was tagged 5.50). Then there is the cab driver who tells me he’ll take me a distance for 6, which seems fair in and of itself given that evening and darkness are coming on, I’m tired, he’s there, and I was prepared to pay up to 8 cedis, even though a “fair” price might have been only 3 or 4.
I’m slowly adjusting to price bundles, variable pricing and to bargaining, or not, within a particular price band.
But what about something for which I don’t have any reference point? For a full month, there has hardly been a shop or vendor who doesn’t have something I have never seen or can’t accurately place. For example, there’s the exotic looking spiky green thing for 3 cedis at a fruit stand – is it ripe? Will I like the taste? Is it in season? Is it small or large for its kind? I have no idea what it even is (I now know is called “sweet apple,” and a fruit I’ll buy again but it’s hard to eat and I have yet to describe the flavor). There are the brown long things I now know are a particular yam; I like them at the school cafeteria but still have not bought or prepared one. There are dense green berries that a housemate bought, but I think they were in a large clump on a short tree limb when they arrived; I would not begin to know how to select or price that, though if I had a fever I might pay exorbitantly because I’m told can be medicinal for malaria.
I have seen bananas on stalks, yet they were plantains, and large mangos that turned out to be “pawpaw” (papaya). Realistically, a papaya might indeed cost more than plantains; I’m not in the habit of buying either at home and have yet to distinguish between the two at the fruit stand. My experience aligns with the guidebook – some fruit sellers offer a fair price and hold to it, some start high if you look hungry or rich, and others hawk the produce relentlessly until their produce has sold. So how much I pay for what continues to be a big experiment.
An international business man in Texas advised me before leaving not to value goods by translating their price from cedi to dollars. Simply operate in the local currency and find relative value in what unfolds. That certainly makes sense if you’re in Tokyo and need to decide whether to buy a cup of coffee at 8 dollars U.S.! The guidebook advises going to several stalls to inquire a price before purchasing. That makes sense, except when I stumble upon a hawker and simply want to get away.
So that brings me to the story of my pineapple. It started two weeks ago when I had gone to a local town to buy bulky household supplies. As I was leaving, I crossed a paved road junction and heard a lone woman call out to me, “pineapple, 5 cedi.” That seemed like a lot to ask for a pineapple!
I had no idea what a fair price should be. Though, 6 months ago I had never even carved up a pineapple, let alone bought one from a street vendor so I knew I was outside of my experience field. I smiled, shook my head and kept walking. She did not come after me. She didn’t even get up. Hawkers were chasing after every car and truck, but the woman simply sat there. Was she exhausted? Fair? Absurdly high, in which case she was mocking me by naming the price? Clearly she was indifferent.
I still didn’t want to buy the pineapple that day, but I became obsessed with the question – what should be the fair price for a pineapple?
According to economists, there was a supply but no demand in this situation, and therefore there was no market. In truth, she had supply and I was an uninformed ambivalent market maker who was confounded by simultaneously wanting a pineapple and feeling rather overwhelmed by the transaction costs of every move I’d made that day. I was at the precipice of economics and systemic human behavior. How much should it cost, I kept turning over in my mind. Beyond that, I confused myself with epistemological questions of “fair” – is it fair that I walked away when she might need 5 cedis more than I do? Would it be fair for me to pay 1 cedi if she paid the farmer 90 pesewa? What if my purchasing power was twice her last customer’s, then is it more fair if I pay twice the price her last customer paid or if I paid the same as her last customer? Oh dear.
If I was a different person, I might have simply paid the asking price in order to taste the pineapple. But instead, I analyzed the situation for another few days before attempting to buy.
“It depends on the season,” a carpool member told me the next morning when I asked how much a pineapple should cost. I told my story. “5 cedi might be reasonable for the stack of pineapples, they are sold that way sometimes.” Oh, the unit could have been different than I assumed. Another person advised me, “In the city, 1 pineapple is 1 cedi, so outside the city it should be 2 pineapples for 1 cedi.” “Unless,” another person added, “the vendor will give you a mango or 2 also, then maybe only 1 pineapple.” “Yes,” the first person agreed, “and it depends on the season too…and if the person knows you.”
Several days later, I visited my academic dean at her home and heard her call over her balcony to a boy in the street, “How much for your pineapple?” (Could this drama have become more intriguing?) “4 cedi,” he shouted back. “Pheeh,” she shewed at him.
I’m now 2 weeks and 5 pineapples into my own attempts. I see the band between 2 for one cedi when they are small and yellowish, to 2 cedis for one pineapple that’s fat and dark, and even 3 cedis if the person who sells lives beneath your balcony and will bring it around to your door for you. I have rounded up and down with an extra mango (which turned out to be a papaya), fewer bananas, and a promise to come back in two days.
Buying here seems to be the real life blend of economics and human behavior, the blend called small business.
Next I’ll learn to distinguish between the mangos and pawpaws.