Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ghana: Day 14 -- This Obruni Went To The Market

Nearing the end of our time in Ghana, we had the opportunity to venture out with the intention of picking up a few souvenirs for our loved ones back home, and for ourselves.

Having experienced the sales pressure from aggressive hawkers the entire time we’ve been in the Accra area, we wanted to be well prepared not to lose our shirts by locals who gave “obrunis” the special price of “twice the actual value”.

The Nichols family (Touch A Life Foundation, Ghana) graciously offered to take us to a place known locally as “The Africa Market”, which was in the Tetteh Quarshie area of Accra.  Think outdoor stalls with vendors hawking their wares, all grouped together in a permanent flea market style roadside slum village.  It turned out to be one of the nicest market areas we had seen, but nice didn’t mean we wouldn’t be ganged up on.

The Nichols advised us to be careful not to commit to anything, and not to say “no”, as it is considered culturally impolite.  If we say anything remotely close to “maybe”, “we’ll see”, “I’ll think about it”, we’ve pretty much either committed to the purchase, or agreed to be harassed endlessly until we fall to our knees and either cry uncle, or fork over a large sum of money just to get them to stop... only to have other hawkers witness the transaction and how easily you were swindled, and then taking their turn saying “now you’ve bought from my brother here, you come to my shop next, I make you good deal”.

It has to be experienced to get the full effect of the fine art of shopping, Ghana style.

Our best approach, we were told, was to say “Tell me your best price, and when I’m done looking at all the other shops, I will decide then whether or not to buy.”

That backfired within the first five minutes.

One of the items that Debra and I were looking for were Unity Statues, and we wanted to pick up about 8 of them in total, so we decided that the best plan was to get a better rate for a “bulk purchase”.  The guest house had large ones for 18gc, so we knew the smaller ones would cost much less.

The first shop we went into had the small ones we liked, and the bargaining began.

Their “best” price?  15gc.

We laughed and shook our heads, saying we’d continue to other stores, and if that was the best price we saw, we’d make our decision at that time.

All according to plan, right?

Except they refused to let us leave, forcing us to give them our “best price” (the highest we’d pay).

We told them we’d pay 50gc for 8 unity statues.

They outright refused.

We shrugged and said “we’re leaving”.

They refused to let us leave without a counteroffer.

We calculated that the price we had given them meant paying only 6.25gc each, which was unreasonable, so when they tried to tell us 12gc each, we counteroffered with  60gc for the 8 statues, which worked out to be 7.5gc each.

That was our final offer, knowing we’d never find them that low anywhere else, but given how persistent and disrespectful they were, we would rather have paid more elsewhere if the vendor was nicer to deal with. 

They weren’t happy at all, but given that we were back to telling them we’d simply let it go and come back if we were still in the mood to buy, they caved.

SCORE 1 for the Canada-U.S. team.

Meanwhile, Tia’s being pulled away (read:  drawn and quartered) by a half dozen merchants who all promise her that their shop is the one she should see, and that they all will give her “special prices”.  One in particular even tried to whisper in her ear that he would give her “black price, not obruni price”, which made her nearly spit out in laughter.

What was really difficult is their intent to split us all up, rather than to allow us to browse as a group and enjoy this experience together.  I don’t know if this is because they could put more pressure on one individual when that person was separated from their group, or because they didn’t want us to be able to “call a lifeline” when needing a second opinion on a price...  or something else entirely.

We were also told beforehand that if you’re looking for something specific, you can take a chance and keep looking, or you can play your hand openly and ask if anyone knows where one such item can be found.  The advantage to playing your hand is that if it exists, they’ll bring it to you in droves... but then you will have basically let them know how badly you want such an item, and they’ll follow you everywhere, item in hand, saying “but you promised me you would look at these, I give you special price, how much you pay for this?  It’s nice...  take a look, come to my shop, there is more...”

I took a chance after seeing that the first few shops didn’t have any animal carvings other than giraffes, elephants, turtles and birds.  I wanted to find my son Brandon a frog, and I knew I’d need help.

I barely mentioned it, and the moment they understood what I was trying to say (frog, wooden, carving), several of them ran.  Yes, ran.  I kid you not.

Within moments, three frogs magically appeared.  Well, two, if you consider that two of them were identical.  Two dark green ones, one black one, pretty basic and not all that attractive looking, as far as frogs go...  so I kind of hummed and hawed, and told them I’d wait and see.

An hour later, he was still following me, frogs in hand.  Seriously.  Doesn’t he have a store to run, or do they all like, cover for each other’s absences?  I’d love to study their practices and see what goes on in the background, and more specifically, what they say once we leave!

One shop had necklaces, and I wanted to see if they had any sea glass ones, since we weren’t able to find sea glass at the beach the day before.  I found one that would have been perfect for Tia’s birthday on Monday, with blue sea glass.


Immediately, I noticed something different about the seller.  She wasn’t pushy, she offered me a reasonable price (8gc), and only offered to help as much as I needed, and let me do the rest without pressure.  I made the decision right then and there to step into her store and see what else she had.

Right around this time, Tia came back, looking completely overwhelmed at the barrage of brazenness the vendors subjected us all to.  Josh, Tia and I managed to look through this one shop in peace, the other vendors seemed to respectfully wait just outside the store, rather than trying to bother us while we were browsing.  It was SO nice to have the pressure off for a while!  Tia and I ended up pooling our purchasing power and get a better price for a pair of Oware games, rather than paying more for one each.

Then, Tia looked up, and saw the most beautiful Gye Nyame wall hanging we had seen the entire time we were in Ghana, and she excitedly pointed to it.  She knew I’d love it, and she knows me well...  I added it to our purchase, which ended up giving me enough leverage to negotiate a better price for the necklace.  Satisfied we had done good on the deals, we made our purchase, and while we waited for her to count out some ebony seeds for our Oware games, the vendors outside were getting restless, seeing how much we had spent in one shop...

They clearly wanted a piece of the pie, and didn’t like it when we spent larger amounts in one shop.
As we stepped out, we were bombarded with the same lines and lies, except they seemed more persistent, since they’d been watching keenly and knew exactly how much we’d spent, and knew that we’d eventually reach our financial limit and call it a day.  They wanted in on the action first, before that took place.

Another vendor was different from the wolf pack.  He called us into a quiet alley that had various toys and sculptures made of scrap metal.  This intrigued us, and we proceeded to follow him further into his shop, which was clean, orderly, well kept with a variety of items that were well displayed.  It wasn’t the shop that impressed us so much as his gentle disposition, his kind and sincere demeanor and his willingness to offer his reasonable prices without playing games.

He told us he was at shop #96, and that he’d take care of whatever we needed.  He demonstrated a few items for us, one of which was inexpensive and we enjoyed trying out, and we promised to buy three of those, but that we’d come back once we were done shopping to make a decision on the rest of the items we had liked.  We pulled out a 10gc bill to pay for the three items, and he gave it back to us, saying “keep it until you come back, but take the three items for now, pay me later when you’ll be back.  I trust you.” 

What a refreshing tactic.

I wasn’t born yesterday;  I knew that by doing this he was taking a small risk, but that he was also increasing his chances that we’d be back.  He gave us his business card, and we smiled when we saw it.  His name?  Divine.  Divine indeed.  We thanked him for being so pleasant to deal with, and said this is the type of merchant we like doing business with.  We know what we want, and what we don’t want... and what we don’t want is pressure!

He laughed and said he understood, and that’s just how he does business.  We talked a little more as we walked away, and learned that he is a Christian.  I can see that he applies Christian principles to his business as well, in how he treats people.  We liked that.

I had wanted to find a nativity set, and had seen a few that were more than I was willing to pay, but meanwhile, I simply tried to find a few items for a few people back home.  As more and more items got crossed off the list, I began to wonder if I’d ever find the nativity set I’d had in mind.

Meanwhile, Tia has found her own “Divine”, a gentleman named Morgan who took great care of her and helped her find a purchase suitable for her mom.  I joined her in his shop, and other greedy vendors piled up at the shop entrance like sharks waiting for their mid-morning snack.  As soon as I began to make my way around the tiny shop, I saw the groups of nativity sets, six in all, and zero’d in on one in particular that I really liked.  I hesitated to ask... but I had to.

"How much?"

I expected to hear at least 85-95gc, since individual animal carvings similar to this ranged from 5-10gc each and this nativity set had the hut (barn), the three wise men, Mary & Joseph, a shepherd, a camel, an angel, 2 sheep, a goat/cow/pig something, and of course, Baby Jesus... all carved, all individual pieces. 

He said “How much you pay?

I told him that the gift shop at our hotel had one for 40, and should he be willing to let me have this one for 35, I would seal the deal right then and there.

When he accepted without a counteroffer, I was shocked.  I proceeded to yell for Josh, since he had our pouch with my money and his.  Not the most convenient system when you’re shopping.  While waiting for him, Tia found the purchase for her mom, and I picked up one for myself as well.

In no time, Joshua showed up, led by another vendor who played it smart by going to find Joshua, since he knew that the less time we were held up in this one shop, the more time we’d have to visit his.  Innovative, really!

Joshua had made a few small purchases of his own, all for reasonable prices.  He handled the shopping brilliantly, I was so proud of him!  Perhaps, though, he didn’t buy more because it was just too much of a hassle?  :D

Tia and I tried to leave the shop, and were swarmed by what reminded us of a nasty mosquito cloud of hungry vendors ready to suck your blood like fiends until you swatted them away.

Somehow, we reconnected with Debra, who, after getting her kids’ gifts engraved, had also picked up the 8 unity statues from the first vendor.  She then took off in search of fabric.  We hoped to see her again.  Somehow, in a place like this, it was hard to tell...

In one shop, Tia found a bandana cloth with a blue painting of an African village.  She took off her sunglasses and her own bandana to make sure it would fit.  It did.  She purchased it, put her own bandana back on, and left.

Nearly done, we re-checked our list, did a bit more shopping in what was beginning to feel like a chaotic blur, and ended up with just one more item to get (a flag) while we waited for our last (?!) purchase to get engraved.

While we waited, we returned to see Divine at shop #96 and ended up picking up what we had admired earlier, as well as paying him for the three items he had already provided us with.  He threw in two African drum Christmas ornaments, and gave us his business card.  We didn’t realize then how important the business card would turn out to be!

Debra resurfaced with some wild stories of her own.  She was hoping to buy two dolls, but wouldn’t pay more than 20gc each.  One vendor offered her a pair of small dolls, but insisted on 50gc for the pair.  As she continued to refuse, other vendors rushed in with their pairs of dolls, and she finally said, out loud, “Whoever can sell me two dolls for 40gc total gets my purchase!”  Another vendor shoved two large dolls in her direction, which she immediately accepted, making the initial vendor quite upset with her.  Oh well :o)

We were quite a sight...  Feeling more than ready to leave, but still waiting for my purchases to be engraved, we made one more effort to find the Ghana flag.  We resorted to asking the vendor, knowing it could bring on another onslaught of “help” we weren’t prepared to fend off, but the thought of walking back through all the stores to find a flag didn’t appeal to us either.

God showed us great mercy – the very shop owner whose shop we were in had flags, they were tucked in a tiny area and we hadn’t seen them.

The problem, though, was that he wanted 20gc each.  The negotiating terms were simple...  we held out the last of our smaller bills – 24gc total between Tia and I, and said “we need two flags, but this is all we have left”.  The vendors who had been shadowing us like vultures, realizing this was their last opportunity for a sale, ran off in search of flags.  They came back with 3’x5’ flags they offered us  for 24gc a pair, but we wanted small flags, maybe 18” tall, and 2-3” wide, whatever the proper flag ratio is.


The vendor we’d been with had small flags, but they were made with superior fabric, hence the higher price.

He tried to counteroffer with a higher price, but we stated, over and over again, that this is all we had, we were done.

Finally, reluctantly, he agreed, but we could tell he was a little disappointed.  We felt bad about that, but having made other purchases in his store, we knew that it would all balance out.  He still made a profit.

The other vendors didn’t give up.  “Come here, you promised you’d visit my shop.”  “You haven’t even looked at my store yet, let me show you what I have for you, I will give you special price.” Some were so pushy, and their lack of personal boundaries didn’t help...  it was, at times, sickening to deal with.   I don’t know what kind of buyer they were trying to attract, but it wasn’t impressing us one bit.

We explained we had no money left, they persisted.

As we were leaving, Frog Man held out the frogs, and I asked Joshua what his thoughts were.  He advised me to pick up one of them, but we knew if we pulled out more money, we’d have to scramble outta there before we were sucked back into the pressure cooker  vortex once again.

Josh had some small bills in his pocket.  Frog Man told us 6gc.  We didn’t think the frog was exceptional enough for that, we said 4gc.  He refused.  We said 5gc, right here, right now, final offer, let’s get this over with... and the frog became ours.

Don’t quite know what the final score was, but I knew we had come away with an unforgettable cultural experience, some groans and laughs to swap and share, and a handful of treasures for our loved ones back home. 

As we left, we realized that we hadn’t had the presence of mind to take one single photo.  That was one of only 2 disappointments during this entire trip...  can’t complain, really!

Given that the poor Nichols had waited for us so patiently, we weren’t about to go back and rile up the vendors even more.

Then, as we drove through traffic in the mid-day sun, Tia realized that when she had tried on the bandana, she had set down her sunglasses, which had been resting on her head, and had forgotten them at that shop.  They were a cheap pair, but it would have been nice to have them for the rest of the trip.

Back at the hotel, we poured out our loot onto our beds and swapped more stories as we showed each other what we purchased.  Excited about the nativity set, I laid it all out, checking out each piece one by one as I picked them up out of the bag.

Except, wait...  where was Baby Jesus?  No Baby Jesus?!  What?

We couldn’t have a nativity set without Jesus.  I mean, seriously.  Seriously?

We wondered if it may have been in the back of the Nichols’ vehicle, having perhaps fallen out of the bag.
We texted them to give them a heads up.

Another possibility was that the vendor hadn’t put it in the bag to begin with.

I knew from having looked through many items at the shops that they didn’t sell Baby Jesus individually.  If I approached the vendor, would he simply think I was lying and had lost Baby Jesus?  How would we get back there?

The next morning, after we visited with George Achibra and the head of the anti-trafficking unit in Ghana, we decided to head back to the market by taxi.  George Sr. had been told about our predicament, and made us promise to call him “as soon as we found Jesus”.  We joked, albeit seriously, that it was against our religion to go anywhere without Jesus – so we simply had to find him.

The problem was that the Nichols were gone, and we didn’t really know where this place was.  The vendors and markets were *everywhere* in Ghana.  To ask the taxi to take us to “the Africa market” would have gotten us dropped off anywhere, and the risk of being dropped off anywhere in the vicinity of the Niagara Inn was enough to keep us looking for a solution.

Finally, it came to me...  Divine’s business card.  Mr. #96 to the rescue!

I grabbed the bowl I had bought, put the incomplete nativity set into it, and stuffed it into my bag as everyone got ready to leave.  The first taxi we hailed didn’t know where the market was, but the second one did.  We negotiated the taxi price first, which we had been taught to do, and we all took off for round #2 of our adventures at the Africa market.

The vendors were shocked to see us return so soon.  Word spread so quickly, it was rather strange.  Divine came out of his alleyway, welcomed me back with a hug, and told me that he had found Tia’s sunglasses and had set them aside for her.  Amazing.  We told him we’d be at shop #62 where we had bought the nativity set – we explained why, and told him we couldn’t leave Africa without Jesus – we couldn’t go anywhere without him, you know?  He smiled understandingly.

Meanwhile, Tia had found Morgan, the vendor at shop #62, and as soon as she explained the issue, he asked her which set it was, she identified the type of wood it was made of, and he provided us with Baby Jesus.

All was well again..

Somehow, Tia ended up going to a shop in the back alley, one she hadn’t been to the day before.  Apparently, the guy had been “promised” that she’d visit his shop, and she hadn’t... so she reluctantly agreed.

The nativity shop person asked if I needed anything else, but having already spent much in his shop, even though I was very grateful, I was reluctant to consider another purchase.  As I was looking at his bowls again, though, an idea came to me, and I jumped on it.  While he was taking care of that for me, the vendors had already begun gathering outside his shop, ready to pounce.

Since Tia wasn’t back yet, I decided to ask if they had any Oware games that had the seventh hole for each player.  They bolted, and boomerang’d back to me so fast it was almost cartoon like, each with their own Oware game to wow me with.  Some brought the versions with only six holes, and tried to persuade me that this was what I wanted.  I firmly told them I was not interested in those.  A few had brought some  with the seventh hole, but they were very large and would have been too big to bring home, never mind too expensive.

I was ready to give up, but one more vendor arrived, and as soon as I saw what he had brought, I knew I was interested, but had a feeling the price would be too high.  He showed me the features, which included the seventh hole on each side, plus a place to put away all the seeds.  I really liked it, and loved the wood it was made with, but wasn’t sure about paying the price they had given us.

I counteroffered, they didn’t budge.

I counteroffered again, no go.

Once more, a little higher...  they still stuck to their original offer.

The vendor negotiating with me was the brother of Morgan at shop #62, from whom Tia and I had bought the nativity as well as other items.  As I listened to the negotiations and conversations between him and his brother, the more I realized two things...  larger, more special/unique items were harder to negotiate, because they weren’t a dime a dozen...  the vendors knew that if you wanted one, you had to do it through them, as no other shop had one like it.  The other thing I realized was that given all the business we had given his brother, and also because his brother had told him to, he had given us his “best price” from the beginning.  The lowest possible price he could go.

Out of appreciation for having been given a Baby Jesus for our nativity without hassle, and the provision of the lowest price he’d go, we paid the asking price and started to leave.  Again.

Tia came around the corner and said “COME, quick, you *have* to see this...”  That look on her face is rare, I knew it had to have been something special.  She had found a metal sculpture/statue of a woman lifting a tiny baby up over her head in celebration, praise, respect and delight, and it had struck a chord with her unlike anything else she had seen at the market thus far.  If they knew how badly she wanted it, they could have doubled their price.  Thankfully, they gave her a reasonable price to begin with, and after minor negotiations, the statue was hers.

We were done.


Or so we thought.  

Welcome to the Africa Market.

Joshua, who had found a Bob Marley t-shirt he liked, pulled me to the vendor’s shop.

The shirt vendor tried to tell me that the special price of 65gc for the shirt was a special price for Joshua because he and Joshua were now “best friends”.  Uhm, 65gc is your “best friend” price?

I wasn’t about to sit there and draw this out for hours.  I grabbed the shirt, stormed out and ordered the vendor to come with me to the judge and jury.  He had no choice but to follow Joshua and I to where Debra and Tia were sitting at the stairs leading back to the main road, waiting for us.

I held up the shirt, reminded them that Joshua hadn’t gotten much for himself the day before and asked them what their thoughts were on the price.  Joshua’s opinion was no more than 35gc.  Debra and Tia said 25gc, max.  We turned to the vendor and said 25gc.  He didn’t like that at all, not one bit, and said 40gc... it is batik, it is special.

Debra was incredulous at his statement, and jumped all over it.  “Just because you took a white t-shirt and tie-dyed it doesn’t make it special.  We can just as easily do that back home."

He insisted on 40gc.

Fuming, Debra firmly told him in her best no nonsense voice “You know all too well that 40gc is ridiculous.”
His response left us wondering what in the world she had done to him... “Yes, 40gc is ridiculous, I know.

She howled, and said “Fine, then, we agree.  So, how about 25gc.”

Upset that he had slipped, he tried to haggle the price some more, but just because of his outrageous tactics, we refused to give in much, in the end settling for 26gc.  He was not amused.

There was only one more thing to find...  an extra bag of ebony seeds for one of our Oware games.  One of the vendors who had been harassing us was still nearby, so we asked if he would sell us some.  He lit up, ran to get a bag of 48 as I quickly followed him.  We had it in our minds that it would cost 1-3gc at most.

When he told me his price, I grabbed the bag and ran to the rest of the team, who were still waiting on the steps.

I asked them to guess how much he wanted for the seeds.

Debra said 1gc.

Knowing the look on my face, Tia guessed 10gc.

I shook my head.

Joshua guessed 20gc.

I told them that the vendor must have thought we had gone completely mad if he thought for a moment we’d take his price seriously.


For a bag of tree seeds they picked off the ground somewhere.



We all burst out laughing.  He couldn’t possibly be seriously that desperate, to think that we’d fall for that.

We had paid 12.50gc for our Oware game yesterday that came with 48 seeds, PLUS an extra 10 in case some got lost.

We told him this.

He insisted, his attitude worsening by the minute.  He didn’t like to deal with obrunis who had experience at these games.

Debra told him she’d give him what they were worth.  He asked what she thought her price might be...
She didn’t hesitate. “I wouldn’t give you more than 1gc for that bag of beans.”

We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us he was staying at his price of 30gc.

I stood up and said “They didn’t cost you anything, the tree gave them to you willingly.  In fact, never mind – I’ll pick some up myself in the bush before I pay 30gc for these!”

He tried to insist that they did cost him something, so I said “I hate to tell you this, but your tree ripped you off, then.  Here, keep your seeds, and I’m going to go find them from someone else whose tree gave them a more reasonable deal.”

Debra and Tia said he was stunned and didn’t know how to respond from the shock of having been put back in his place.

I found the vendor where I had bought the necklace and Oware games the day before, with only 3gc in my hand.  I explained that I had made purchases there the day before, proved it, and asked how much for an extra set of seeds.  They thought about it, and said “Would 3gc be OK?”

I grinned and said “It’s exactly what I have left.”

As we counted the seeds out, they asked what had brought us to Ghana, and I shared our story with them.  They took down our information, hoping to be able to volunteer here in Ghana as well. 

I thanked them, and made my way back to where the rest of the crew was waiting, and we climbed the steps and hailed another taxi so that we could leave.

Perfect end to a perfect outing...  or was it?

Unfortunately, we had once again forgotten to take photos.

While at lunch, I asked Debra what her thoughts were on returning JUST for photos, and she understood my madness.  We had to get a visual of this to place alongside the words... not just for ourselves, but for everyone else.

Even though we knew... we already knew... it would simply NEVER do it justice.

As you can see, we went back.  And the photos still don't tell the story... but maybe, maybe along with the words, it will offer a more complete visual.

We returned for the photos without any purses or wallets so that we wouldn’t be harassed.  Not surprisingly, their sense of observation is very acute, that’s how they survive in this highly competitive field...  No one attempted to hawk anything to us.  Not one vendor.

We quietly took our photos, and left.


Previous Updates:
Day 1 -- Ticket Revoked?
Night 1 -- Altitude 0m
Day 2 -- The Adventure Continues
Day 3 -- (Pre-Posted) Dear Ato Sam
Day 3 -- Enyan Abaasa (Meeting Ato Sam)
Day 4 -- Precious
Day 4 -- (Pre-Posted) Double The Joy
Day 4 -- George & George (Meeting the twins)
Day 5 -- Back To Accra
Day 5 -- I Like Tacos!
Day 6 -- "Bobble Boobs"
Day 7 -- Breaking Ground
Day 7 -- Life In Kete Krachi
Day 7 -- Beyond The Surface
Day 8 -- Face To Face With Slavery
Day 8 -- Rooster Boy
Day 10 -- Bittersweet Rescue
Day 10 -- Tasting The Joy Of Freedom