Oware – the ups and downs of haggling

 I thought that would be the last I saw of this guy, but two nights later, I was out on the veranda watching the rain tipple down as usual, and he came out of the gloom into the hut.  The guard had already arrived and as he did with anybody; friend, foe, mugger or robber, he grunted a “Hi”.

 The seller came up the stairs and placed a greasy canvas bag on the small uneven legged table on the dais.  He opened it up and there were three Oware boards.  One was small and rose coloured, another had rough carpentry and visible nails.  The third was a proper box shape, with a simple but effective carving on the lid.  I opened it up and there were the six large bowls on either side.  At the end were two shallow rectangular bowls for putting captured beans, and the beans themselves were large, dry and green, like hardened broad beans.  And a rich smell of boot polish rushed into my nose the moment the box was opened.

The box

The box

It looked right, if a bit bulky, and the wood was superb. I said, “I’ll take this one.  He looked at me and said, “how much”.  This is where I am supremely bad.  Not being brought up in a culture of bargaining, I am used to paying whatever price anyone says and then shouting abuse at the system for ripping me off afterwards.  In most other countries, barter is still a powerful economic tool, and you are meant to come to some agreed price.  I’ve tried in various countries but never been particularly successful.  I have too many guilt feelings about the lack of money everyone I am interacting with in Africa has, and to beat them down to a low price is immoral, and serves only to reinforce the command the north has over the south.  To give in, though, allows people who have the right exposure to hyper-inflate the market; taxi prices can go through the roof in some areas where naive business men pay the first price, excluding local people from the market. Or so it seems.

 I’ve tried to learn from others, and am a bit stronger willed when I’m with someone.  There is a bit of bravado at trying to lower the price to the best possible.  There are hundreds of tricks.  One is to be worldly wise, “I know what you do, you always inflate prices; I’ll take you down to 3000”. The second is to purport to have some local knowledge. “It’s only 3000 to the airport from here, I’ve been here before”.  The third is to say “I’ve only got 3000.”

 The unwritten rules of bartering of course always state that the buyer starts low, the seller starts high and you meet somewhere in the middle.  I never get that right, starting so low that I get contempt from the seller, or too high and the deal is done before I realise I have been too generous.

 The most curious example of bartering I have seen was one done by a colleague of mine in Tanzania.  When you reach a set of taxis, he would go for the lowest price. “1000 Shillingi to get to the Restaurant”.


“No, my friend, the Slipway is only a mile away, 1000 Shillingi.”

“3000 for you, sir”.

“Come on.  You take me for a ride, we only want to go to the restaurant. 1000 Shillingi.”

“My car it is old, and there are many potholes.  I make a loss at 2000 Shillingi”.

My colleague would then start to walk away “I’m sure there are many other taxi drivers on this rank who will take us to the restaurant for 1000 Shillingi.”

“Ok, 1000”, the driver would mumble.


“1000.” And we were in and off.  The driver would still be happy that he was making some money as opposed to sitting on the rank, and perhaps he could pick up another on the way back that would really make his trip worthwhile.  But how this guy managed to stay at his original price, I do not know, and cannot replicate.

 So, I have one further tactic, which is also rather cruel, but depended on the relationship I had built up with Kojo in the short time I had got to know him.  Kojo was the most honest Ghanaian I ever met.  Not only was he not corrupt, most Ghanaians I had met were not corrupt, but he was also intrinsically good and was not really trying hard to look out for himself.  This made him incredibly gullible on all fronts, and because he could not read, he was easily duped.  However, he was one of the nicest men I have ever met, and few people really took advantage of him for his lack of cynicism or selfishness, because he was so nice.  But they could put him into awkward situations, and this is all I did now. I tried to play on the trust we had established in my time there.  He struggled because he also wanted the salesman’s trust.  I asked Kojo what a good price was.

 “15 000 Cedis (at the time that was about £5),” was what the salesman had said.  Instead of bargaining, I looked at Kojo “do you think that is a good price”.  He was taken aback for being asked to have an opinion, and then quietly said, “Yes”.  And, my ploy having failed completely, I paid up.  A fiver for a beautiful box and a game I had coveted for years was still not a bad deal.

2 thoughts on “Oware – the ups and downs of haggling

  1. Oware – the ups and downs of haggling – String Knife and Paper

  2. Oware – the ups and downs of haggling – String Knife and Paper

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