Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
In this dispatch, we are going to pick up last week's
theme and take it one step further. But first, a little bit of set up: nicknamed "Nairobbery," Kenya's capital city has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous
urban areas in Africa. People tell you not to venture beyond the city center unless you are in a cab going to a specific destination in one of the nicer suburbs of the city. They also tell you don't go out at night, even if you are in the city center and even if you are only walking a few blocks.
My experience in the city was, in general, free from incident. I did walk around past the city center (the most intrusive events being that each day three or four people would target me for a lame scam or maybe try to pick my pocket), and I did go out at night in a very limited way around the city center (the most intrusive events being that shadowy figures said unkind things to my female traveling companion). As a friend recently pointed out, when violence -- true violence -- happens in Africa, it does not generally happen to white people.
However, even with a problem-free few days under my belt, it was hard to get the negative images of Nairobi out of my mind as I headed out of town to try my hand at bargaining in one of the local markets. The market I had in mind was just beyond the "safe" zone downtown, off a street called River Rd that is notorious for theft and mild violence. I brought the equivalent of just over $20 with me and planned to buy my sister some of the beaded jewelry that people from the local Maasai tribe sell at the market.
Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that I made several mistakes in my approach to the whole adventure. I allowed my mild trepidation as I entered the market to make me impatient and therefore in a position of poor leverage. I allowed my vague nervousness to grow significantly when one of the sellers referred to me as the East African equivalent of "Whitey." I forgot that I didn't actually need to buy anything. I tried to play off a couple of different lies about why I was in Kenya and where I was staying, which both backfired on me (rule number one when bargaining in Nairobi: don't tell them you're staying at the Hilton - I managed to follow this one - but rule number two: don't tell them that you are staying at a hotel of which you don't know the location and which, they inform you, happens to be right across the street from where you are standing, especially if you are also trying to convince them that you are a student who has been studying in Nairobi for over a year). And finally, I didn't set out my rules of transaction early in the process.
In the end, I was thoroughly defeated in my negotiations. The sellers in the Maasai market left me a broken man. I spent all the money I had on two small bracelets and two necklaces -- items that should have cost me no more than $2 or $3 a piece ended up costing me about $5. But it's not really the financial cost that makes me feel like I lost. The $10 I spent beyond what I meant to will go a lot farther in their pockets than it would have in mine. If you're smart about it, that $10 could buy you lunch ten or fifteen times over in Nairobi.
Once again, it's this feeling like I don't know how to navigate the system that makes me feel like I've lost. And once again, I felt like it was the system that failed me - I longed for the days of transparent Western capitalism. If only there were more clarity around cost of goods and competitors' prices, I wouldn't have felt so taken. And finally, once again I had the tables turned on me.
Shortly after my failed negotiations I went back to my hotel -- that beacon of Western capitalism, the Hilton. There, I went down to the "Business Center" to use the Internet. The cost? Twenty Kenyan shillings a minute, or about three and a half minutes to the dollar. That's kind of expensive, but at that point it was night, and I couldn't very well leave the hotel to find another place to use the Web.
The next day, though, I did have occasion to compare prices. The best rate I found? One Kenyan shilling a minute. That's right, the good old Hilton charged me twenty times what it would have cost me elsewhere for the same service. Compared to the doubling of costs I experienced in the market the day before, this was an outrage. I mean twenty times the price of the best competitor! But for some reason, I didn't feel like Paris' dad and his cronies had emasculated me the way the guy in the market had. Part of it was that the Hilton told me the rate upfront. I knew what I was up against from the very start, and I didn't fell pressured to buy. But, I think the more relevant thing is that getting fleeced is much less personal when you are fleeced by a piece of paper on a desk in the "Business Center," as opposed to having some Kenyan man shake your hand and whisper "Make it twenty" in your ear.
People have long decried the impersonal nature of modern America. At this point, every town is the same, with its McDonalds' and its Wal*Marts and its Starbucks' (of which, incidentally, there are none in Nairobi). At the same time, American commercialism is, in many areas, as personalized as it has ever been -- when you buy a book from Amazon it knows who you are and what you like; when you get your news from Google, you can choose your subjects and your sources. But in the end, our system is fundamentally based on impersonal relationships between buyers and sellers. The more the seller can limit face-to-face interaction, the better he can do. Even in the few remaining independent stores, the owner never tells you the price of something; a sticker on the item does. And though, at this point, I've become so accustomed to the impersonal nature of our system that a piece of paper charging me twenty times what I should pay bothers me less than a human being charging me two times what I should pay, I'm becoming increasingly aware that maybe we're doing it wrong.