I’ve been in Senegal five days now. I’m in class at Africa Consultants International (ACI), a school that teaches cross-cultural awareness and languages. My first homework assignment: boutik bi. Find a road side boutique stand, greet the owner, look around, and buy what intrigues you the most.
Let’s break this down.
Finding a boutik isn’t a problem. This neighborhood of Dakar, like the rest of the bustling city, boasts merchants every ten feet, hawking fruits or vegetables or peanuts or teeshirts or sandwiches. Some stake out tarps on the sidewalk, some have tables, some have flimsy structures or even a shop.
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Greeting the merchant. Many speak some French. Most find it quite amusing to provoke a tubab into speaking wolof. I am scared and nervous to even approach, let alone speak to try to bargain a decent price.
Bargaining is an undeveloped skill for me. I’m used to entering spacious stores with price tags neatly lined up under well labeled products. A large red “SALE” sign means a bargain for me. The basic principles of bargaining work in my head: never name a price first, offer a third of their initial price…but I’m convinced it’s an intuition that must be gained through practice. Worse, I don’t have a clue of what a reasonable price would be here in CFA’s, their money. Even worse than that, there are some items with fixed prices. If I try to bargain those down I’ll really upset someone.
Buy what intrigues me most…what doesn’t intrigue me? Shops are covered from floor to ceiling with goodies from homemade peanut-brittle to baguettes to matches and garlic and flip flops and weave and wigs and soccer balls and rice and…I don’t know where to focus my eyes! I see a blur of color.
A ten pack of knives is hanging from the ceiling with four left in the package. The mangos on the street are fresh and in season and delicious and I hate buying something unless I plan on using it a lot or eating it. I’ll buy a fruit knife.
I go home and ask my host mother a reasonable price for a knife. She sends my little brother with me to purchase one for 100CFA (about 20cents). I buy a candy for my brother as a thank you, and happily return to ACI with my new purchase.
That was four months ago, to the day. The knife has been my faithful companion ever since. I keep it safely wrapped in the “BOUTIK BI” assignment paper. Today, after using the knife to cut a piece of fabric into a rag, I again reread the assignment. I had just returned from my “boutik bi” in the village of Leona. I had been there for a comfortable half hour, joking in Wolof with the guys, ensuring them that no, I still don’t want to marry them, and thanking them for continuing to offer. I remembered that I wanted to do laundry tomorrow, and that I don’t have any soap. I also remember that I didn’t bring my money pouch.
Adam, the owner, gives me a pack of laundry soap. I’ll be back to my “boutik bi” to pay him tomorrow or the next day, or maybe even the day after.