My husband called me ‘the Queen of Shopping’ when we lived in the Middle East and I wrote on subjects like ‘Bargaining 101’. But no amount of years spent drinking tea with carpet sellers from Morocco to Dubai prepared me for bargaining for beads at a Mara village in Kenya.

At the end of our visit to the Mara village in the Maasai Mara I strolled through the market admiring the vibrant beaded jewellery and other arts and crafts on display at the stalls – bangles, necklaces, earrings, anklets, headdresses, spears, bowls, you name it, everything was decorated with beads.

I was encouraged by our guide Ben to select whatever I liked the look of with no obligation to buy at the end and Ben kindly offer to carry my goodies without a hint of the ritual that was to come at the end.

Just like at any market, there was a subtle invitation to buy from some stallholders, a little pressure at others, and coercion from a few. Feeling a sense of desperation in the vendors’ voices, I accepted a few pieces I otherwise would not have considered buying. The Queen of Shopping resisted as much as she could though she secretly wished she was rich and could have simply bought everything.

When my market tour ended, I was led to a patch of ground where Ben spread out the items I’d selected. The Masaai merchants gathered around in a circle and a bargaining ritual began like no other I’d experienced before…

As much as I wanted to return a few items I hadn’t really wanted, there seemed to be no chance to now… had I misunderstood something? There was an awful lot of jewellery on the grass.

There was no verbal haggling. Instead, I was required to scrape my price with a stone on the skin of the inner-forearm of Ben, who had been designated chief haggler. Ouch! That was a deterrent to a prolonged bargaining session right there.

In the Middle East, it’s customary for the seller to name a figure and the buyer to at first offer 50% of the asking price. The seller pretends to take offense and offers a slightly lower price. The buyer shakes their head and offers a slightly higher one. The two eventually reach a price that’s mutually acceptable.

Here, the initial asking price was one that I could not afford. “No problem,” Ben assured me, “The Maasai won’t be insulted, just offer what you can afford.” Even if it’s (gulp) a quarter of the asking price?

The rest of the process followed a similar pattern to bargaining in the Middle East, except sadly I had to stay close to my low asking price – which was insultingly low compared to the merchants’ initial price, but high compared to, say, the prices in the Sarova Mara gift shop. Yet the Maasai weren’t insulted, because, I assumed, they knew their initial offer to be too high. “No problem, don’t worry,” Ben insisted.

When I indicated I couldn’t go higher (I didn’t have more money), the Maasai merchants huddled together and began haggling with each other! They were reaching an agreement over the value of their goods and how they would most fairly divide the final figure amongst themselves.

Hating to see this, I whispered to Ben “I’m so sorry, but I don’t have any more money. I’m happy to return some things…” “Don’t worry,” Ben insisted, “This is normal.” Oh.

“Be happy that your money will help a lot of families,” Ben told me as we walked back to the car where he handed over enough beaded jewellery to fill a treasure chest.

I now had some truly beautiful gifts and mementoes, but even more valuable than the stunning beaded pieces and the bargaining experience was the satisfaction of having helped a handful of families.

1. Take your time. Allow time to tour the markets at the end of your Maasai village visit. You’ll find more beautiful things here than you’ll see in the shops and you can take satisfaction knowing that your money is going directly to the families who crafted the products.
2. Choose wisely. Otherwise, you might get stuck with something you didn’t really want in the end, and you might be too shy to say so.
3. Offer a price that you can afford. Don’t faint if the asking price is too high. That is part of the process. Offer what you know you can afford.
4. Do the right thing. Having said that, appreciate the work that goes into creating some of these pieces and offer a fair price. It is acceptable to return items at this point if you think your price is going to be so low as to be unfair.
5. Be happy. Whatever you ultimately agree upon, take satisfaction in knowing how much your money will benefit the community, and enjoy your purchases!
6. Spread the word. Tell your friends that a cultural tour and bargaining session at a Maasai Village is a must-do experience when they visit ‘The Mara’. We think it should be mandatory.

End of Article


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