We would come to understand that wahauli, bargaining, is a science and an art. It takes calculating and improvisation, but most of all, it takes fayda – courage, pride, and attitude. The bargainer has to demonstrate fayda at all times to keep the respect of the vendor. For Senegalese bargainers, this respect is serious. For us, the students on my study abroad program, we were just trying to amuse the vendors enough so that they would like us and drop their prices.
The performance of the bargaining ritual is very specific. First, chat with the vendor about his or her family, day at work, and state of inner peace. Be complimentary but reserved about the vendor’s goods. Ask how much several other items are before addressing the one you really want, to hide your investment in it. You must have in mind your first asking price, your target price, and your maximum price. If you don’t know what price you should be aiming for, divide the vendor’s initial price by three. No matter what the vendor offers as the price, react as though he has just told you that he wants to eat your pet dog for dinner: shocked, insulted, and disgusted. True possessors of fayda make a yelping noise like they have just been physically struck: eh?! This quick angry squawk is usually paired with clapping a hand to your chest as though it is suddenly difficult to breathe because of the insultingly high price.
This is what I came to love about bargaining: the attitude, the fayda. Bargaining is rare in the U.S. and apologetic when it does happen, a game of manipulation through playing on each other’s sympathies. “Oh, sir, I’m sorry, I only have three dollars with me,” or, “Oh no! Really?” (inhale through your teeth) “Oh man, I really like it, but I’m a student, and I just can’t…” The vendor answers, “I could let you have it for five dollars, but I really can’t go any lower than that.” In Senegal, wahauli is about the performance and the relationships. Imitating the bargaining ritual was our way to prove that we admired the culture we were in, despite our obvious foreignness. That was both fun and crucial.
After you make a noise as though the vendor has just joked about stabbing your best friend, you take your hand from its “shock” position on your chest and put it in its “I insist upon my rights” position on your hip, bring out the other finger and wave it around for emphasis. Then you let him know just how wrong he is about that initial price. “Oh no, my friend,” you tell him in Wolof. “I live in Dakar! I know the real price!” Name a price that is much lower than anything you have ever seen before and insist that either you or a friend bought the same item he is trying to sell you at that price just recently in the market in Dakar. It is the vendor’s turn to look as though you have touched his child with your left hand or walked across his prayer mat with your shoes on. He scorns your ridiculous price and tells you how mistaken you must be. Possibly he lowers his initial price from three times as much as it should be to only twice as much, but he tells you he cannot go any further.
Now you have to really work your character. Explain to him where you live in Dakar. Give him your most skeptical, fayda-filled face. Tell him where you go to school and what it’s close to. Tell him the name of your host family and your Senegalese name as a part of that family. For example, my family was named Faye, from the Serer ethnic group; my name was Astou Faye, Astou assigned to me by an attendant I’d chatted with at the store by the gas station. From what I can gather, Astou is the Senegalese equivalent of “Mary” or “Jane,” a typical Senegalese name which contrasted intensely with my actual appearance. As-TOU? was the reaction I normally got. AS-tou? They would ask incredulously, laughing uproariously, doubling over when I gave them my best why-are-you-laughing-when-I-am-obviously-Serer face. By this time, they should like you enough to drop at least below your maximum price. If they aren’t dropping, or you’re really determined to get a good deal, tell them you will go find the price you want, turn on your heel and leave. If they don’t immediately follow you, you’re probably asking too little.