Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holiday Shopping at the Artisans' Market

I will return to America for three weeks for winter break and thought it would be a good idea to bring back some souvineirs.  Being the male of the species, shopping for souvineirs has never been my strong suit.  I tend to buy a dozen or so generic gifts and then distribute them amongst friends and family by letting them choose what items they like.  When the gifts are gone, they're gone.  Which is a nice way of saying you probably ought to make an effort to see me before I see you if you want any presents this year...

Senegal has several artisans' markets.  The most famous of these is the Artisanal de Soumbedioune, conveniently located less than 3 miles from my home.  I estimate there are over 100 vendors plying their trade at this market and the funny part is: they all sell the same stuff.  And I mean the same stuff.  The real artisans are tucked away in compartments, working diligently to turn out the look-alike handcrafted goods. The "artisans" working the market stalls are absolute hucksters. Would you like a set of "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys?  Every artisan stall has them.  In three different sizes. 

And when they see the Whitest Guy in West Africa enter their little village, the dollar signs are clearly visible in their eyes.  The only way to recreate the shopping experience for you is to replay the actual sales pitches that I received from these vendors.  The following is an amalgamation of verbatim lines used to lure me in...

"Bon jour. Ce va? Parlez Anglais? Where are you from? Etas Unis? Boston? I love Boston Celtics. So for you, Celtics Man, I give you good price. Today is special. For you: half price. On Everything. You see these?" (brings out a pair of wooden spoons). "How much you think? Two for 10,000 (about $20 US). That is good price (they are probably worth $1 each). Oh, that is too much? Don't worry. That is my opening price, then you bargain back. How much you have?"

I told him the truth. I am only there to look.  I brought 2,000 CFA (about $4), enough to buy a Coca Cola (about 400 CFA) in case I get thirsty and maybe even a snack.  I pulled the 2,000 out of my pocket to show him I was being honest.
"Okay, one for 2,000."

I shook my head no and smiled.  As as I left the stall, I heard... "Okay, one for 1,500.  You still buy a Coca Cola"... and I walked on to the next vendor.

"Come here. Just look. Just come take a look at my work.  Just come inside," says the next vendor as he points to his eyes and forcefully grabs my arm to lead me into his marketplace stall.  This can be a bit disconcerting to Americans, which the vendors are fully aware of.  And the vendors are also fully aware that if you don't buy from them, you will buy from someone else.  Inside the stalls is where the real bargaining occurs. 

Meanwhile, the first vendor reappears as if out of nowhere. "1,000 for one"...

But, back to the second vendor. "You are first customer today.  My father said, 'Never let first customer go without buying,' so I give you good price. You see these (as he points to some small wood animal sculptures), I make these. This is all my work.  How much you think for these? 10,000 CFA for three"...  As I try to leave, the vendor blocks the entry way to the stall.  Once again, this can be disconcerting to tourists - downright intimidating, in fact - if you do not understand that you merely look the man in the eye, shake his hand and say, "Non, merci."

The third vendor was my favorite.  He did not appear to be working in a stall, but was merely wandering the marketplace.

"Come here. You are nice man. These other men don't treat you well. I give you gift. It comes from my heart. There is no cost," and he proceeds to wrap a bracelet made with sea shells around my wrist.  He explained that sea shells were once used as currency, so this was a highly treasured gift.

"You like my gift? Now you give me gift. How much money you have? You will not give me gift? Why? You do not like Senegalese people? You do not like black people? Come with me to my shop. I give you girlfriend."

I had to smile and chuckle at his approach, but still I nodded in the negative and thanked him for his time as I took off the bracelet to return his merchandise.

"You do not like Senegalese girls? You do not like black girls? Perhaps you would like a young boy?"

No!! No!! No!! I love Senegalese girls! I love black girls! 

"Then, you come with me and I give you black, Senegalese girlfriend. Just come take a look at my work"...


  1. Oh, man, that's hilarious stuff. I've had some similar experiences in Mexico, Thailand, and other places, but those involved... well, the less said about it, the better, I suppose.

  2. A Very Merry Christmas to you, my friend.

  3. First, I want to say that you may very well have the coolest blog title in all of blog world. Nice work.

    And I loved the market description. Especially the part about giving a girlfriend away. How resourceful!

    I've been in some similar situations at markets, but not in Africa. Some day, perhaps. But I get a kick out of haggling.

    Happy New Year. Best of luck w/your West African adventure.