Strike the brain

The Lord of the Bowls

 By Katina Reimann-Davaz

I continue going to my French classes, and although I disagree more than ever with the teaching methods of my French instructor, his teachings in fact do start to bear some fruits. At parties I am now able to partake in small talk discussions, which makes me wonder whether a German accent in French sounds as cute and charming as a French accent in German.

I also can manage our frequent visits at the vet’s more or less on my own, which is very important. (However, most of the times I let Ahmet call in later to double check if I understood everything alright). My French is also efficient enough to plan the daily dinner with our “bonne” who for her part has a lot of fun trying out new dishes with me, hoping to improve her housekeeping skills for further employments. In order to prepare for these new dishes we go to the market together, which for me is still an exciting venture; for one because of the many things that are sold there of which I have no idea for what they are used for. Secondly, because Marché Tilaine is a hypermarket, which is why I go almost unharassed even though I am the only toubab (white person) around. Besides, the majority of the people there are women apart from the odd male merchant, which is kind of soothing sometimes.

If you visit the markets of down town Dakar, for example Marché Kermel or Marché Sandaga you will be besieged like a piece of dung by flies (if one excuses this sort of harsh metaphor). The streets of Dakar are teaming with street vendors who are apparently of the opinion we white people have an almost inexhaustible need for fake Oakley sunglasses, counterfeit gold watches, Gucci belts, T-shirts by variable designers, phoney Montblanc fountain pens and perfumes. A single polite “non, merci” when being confronted with such goods remains ignored, a second will be rewarded with a cheerful „ce n’est pas chère“(that’s not expensive). The attempt to make the respective salesperson of the goods above mentioned understand that you really don’t need his beautiful fake gold Rolex at the present time because, as you demonstrate by stretching out your left arm, you do in fact own already a nice watch, falls on deaf ears. „Ce n’est pas chère“ is the answer that solves all your problems. According to street vendor logic one can feel free to buy ten or more watches because they are not expensive and everybody knows that Europeans and US-Americans (and everybody else that looks like them) are rich and don’t know what the hell to do with all their money. That, of course, is partially true, especially if one considers the average daily income of a Senegalese person which is $ 1, 56 and renders Senegal to being a member of the less developed countries of our planet. Still, just because one’s pecuniary situation is somewhat more relaxed it doesn’t mean that one has to invest one’s more or less abundant fortune in fake Rolexes or football shirts promoting Senegal’s top soccer player El Diouf, even though this might be a wise investment in the eyes of our Dakarois street vendor.

In the case of having to deal with a representative of this guild one is in to a mind-bending conceptual clash of the meaning of the word logic.

I once made the mistake to try and reason with a young man trying to sell me men’s belts by explaining that these belts were a) for men and b) because of that too big for me. Hey, that might be a reason but no obstacle because „ce n’est pas chère, madame!“ The following scenario is likely to happen in real life:

It is to be expected that this guy will then run to tell his brother to tell his friend who has got another friend in the belt business to go and produce a smaller men’s belt for Madame and that pronto! In the meantime, while waiting, the guy is going to involve you into further negotiations, which most probably start with him inquiring what else you need. The logical answer to this will be that you, in fact, don’t need anything for the time being which he will acknowledge with an understanding nod upon which he will say: “Ok, but lets say you needed something, that would be what exactly?”

Meanwhile the guy with the smaller belts has returned which turn out to be exactly the same stuff like what the other guy offered, since they both buy from the same whole sale. Maybe he snug a couple of kids’ belts among the others which will be then proffered into your face because they are, as you wished, smaller. Dakar’s street traders just can’t comprehend the fact that women in their 30s don’t have any use nor liking for white plastic belts with Pókemon printed on them.

One cunning strategy to get rid of the guy is now to bid at a ridiculously low price for the presented hideousness, upon which the trader will react with a rather offended :“ Oh, Madame, c’est pas possible!“ He then beats out a much higher price and so it goes until you try once more to make him understand that you do not need his belt. Again the understanding nod; he slowly starts rolling up a snake leather imitation belt and you are thinking.” Yes, he finally got it right!” … But no! Senegalese street hawkers like to be hypothetical!

“So let’s pretend you found this Pókemon belt absolutely desirable, how much would you pay? …”

The only tactics to avoid the eternal customer stalking street vendor that really work are to always look purposeful and walk on briskly even if that means you will be walking on briskly up and down the road a couple of times because you were too busy looking busy and thus missed your turn, which applies especially for those new comers in town. It is also useful to acquire a firm „Non, Merci!“.  Strangely enough, a cheerful „La prochaine fois“ very often does the job, too.

Senegalese people like it the polite way, which is understandable; after all, even Senegalese street vendors are only doing their job and thus deserve to be treated correctly.

This one time I made the mistake to react a little too gruff, when a young sales man would not refrain from trying to sell me a pair of his’n’hers gold watches even after a whole volley of repeated „Non, Mercis“. I was on my way to an appointment and already late which is why I was hurrying up Avenue Albert Sarrault in down town Dakar. The watch vendor was initially moving towards me pursuing the intense intent to sell the mentioned watches to another fellow toubab. I don’t know what initiated the impulse but when the two had reached my position, and our shoulders almost touched, the guy let go immediately of his former victim and was further on glued to my side. Maybe he had reached an invisible line because, like prostitutes, Dakar’s street vendors have their restricted territory. As for me, I hurried along, testifying the possession of a nice watch and informing him in my crap French that his watches were definitely not my taste, upon which he kindly demonstrated to be determined to change register in order to make communication easier for us both and asked of which nationality I might be.

By the way, forget to try and get rid of these guys by pretending you spoke Suomi or some remote dialect spoken in the north of Lapland; I can assure you that this guy has a degree in business-northern-Lapp or is at least half way fluent in whatever fantasy language you come up with, at least more fluent than me in French. In my efforts to meet my friend without being hassled I shot a whole battery of „Non Mercis“ at him. Had I been a character in a video game and „Non Mercis“ a part of my survival material my reserve would have been empty and I close to the inevitable game over. To make a long story short, I had neither the time nor the nerve to deal with this guy or his watches, which is why I halted suddenly and prepared my final coup de grace. I stared my opponent cold in the eye and articulated a pronounced „Au revoir!“ in his face. There! Mr Golden Watch stopped, his features slacked disappointedly and he retaliated with a frustrated:“ O lala, Madame, vous n’êtes pas gentile!“, which was true and although I hadn’t been nice to him he refrained from using his last wunderwaffe, the “R“-word. Because it might well be possible that, after having ended a sales talk to abruptly, one might be called a racist and that reproach will burn itself into the shoulder blades of the departing tourist like ball lightening and he will then buy anyway because who’d like to be called a racist? Advanced street vendor logic: Europeans and US Americans are so filthy rich that they don’t know what to do with their money which is why they come to Senegal in order to spend their time buying watches, perfumes and shades en gros because they pity the African people. Those who wont indulge in that past time activity don’t, because they do not buy from black people, thus: racists! Most street vendors keep up good spirits, though, even if you haven’t bought anything after two hours.

In fact the streets of Dakar resemble one large open-air mall. There is nothing you wont find, from fashion articles to ironing boards and toilet brushes, video cassettes, plates, glasses up to African art. If you are cunning and have an eye for art you are likely to come across something that is even worth buying. My friend Huda managed this way to get hold to a couple of nice pieces of African art which then adorned her interim flat in Dakar. Important in that case is a good bargaining strategy. Rule of thumb is usually to let the guy give you his opening bid. It is self understood that his price will be too high which is not meant to be taken personal since it is simply part of the sales ritual. The potential buyer then lowers the price down to below the half of the primal bid and eventually you will meet somewhere in the middle. One mustn’t forget in Dakar haggling is as vital to buying something as money is for paying. Any Dakarois street vendor is happy about any unknowing tourist who will pay his over the top prices; at the end of the day, though, he will be utterly bored. The job of a street hawker is only worthwhile when he can lead a sales talk that involves a tough price battle. Has the customer left the stand a couple of times in a huff and the vendor ran after him to lure him back to his stand the situation is getting more interesting. And if, at the end, the street vendor could accuse the customer of wanting to ruin him and his whole family and if he finally succumbs to the customers price because, as he claims, he likes his face or because it is “his stupid day” (I’m not making this up), then the street vendor will be happy to belong to his guild.

Actually, I bought a couple of useful things in the streets myself. Most of the time inspector chance is the co-buyer, because it is very likely that you will be sitting in your taxi, patiently awaiting the traffic lights to change, when suddenly this guy with the plastic containers appears, which you need to store away last night’s leftovers only to throw them away three weeks later when the left over spaghetti have turned into green worms from Mars wearing fur.

If you are sly everything is cheaper in the streets, provided you master the above-explained rules of haggling. You call that guy up to your taxi, quibble for a short time because the lights will turn green soon and end up with three colourful plastic containers in three different sizes to the price of one.

It is quite difficult to find decent kitchenware in Dakar, save you want to pay a lot. Dining table aesthetics are a concept yet unheeded in Senegal; here people eat in groups out of one big enamel bowl and, respectively in some parts of Senegal, are happy to find anything at all in those bowls. Anyway, we in Diaspora like our dining table to look stylish which is why I was happy to one day spy a street salesman who was offering simple grey coffee mugs made of some heavy ceramics, which I then purchased for about € 4,50 saucers included, accompanied by the loud honking of the taxis that were waiting behind mine. Another problem arose due to the absence of acceptable salad bowls. This field, too, is covered by a specialist in the streets of Dakar, who sells simple white bowls that can contain a reasonable amount of greens of which I then obtained three. This happened totally by chance on the way somewhere coming from somewhere else and I had a lot of things on my mind but certainly not salad bowls. A short while ago I remembered that this guy also sold smaller white bowls which would come in handy if one had to serve sauces and dips at dinner parties. The Turkish cuisine employs a lot of those and, being a somewhat remote member of the Turkish embassy to Dakar, it is very likely that I will have to offer a good Cacık or a hearty Haydari some day or another. Then the table has to look nicely because these events are usually in the presence of the ambassador otherwise we’ll just have spaghetti. Thus Ahmet and I set out one Saturday morning to hunt down the Lord of the Bowls and we searched the neighbourhoods where I had earlier bought my other salad bowls. Did we find the guy? Hell, no, why would we! This time we were looking for something specific, we were willing to buy, ready to spend, ergo absolutely uninteresting for any street vendor.

I guess the next time I am going down town in a taxi I will think about the possible consequences of the change of the party leadership of the SPD, maybe the guy with the bowls will jump out of nowhere right at the end of the red phase and I will finally get my bowls.

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