Am I getting Ripped Off?

One thing visitors worry about a lot is the “right” price for things. Most visitors don’t have a good notion of the value of the franc cfa in general and its value in Mali in particular. While the cfa is used in a number of countries, its buying power varies depending on economy of the given country. The connection of the franc cfa to the euro at a fixed rate artificially enhances its value in some places where the economy is poor. This is the case for Mali which is why the same amount of cfa in Mali may not purchase as much as in other CEAO countries. Add to that the fact that Mali is a landlocked country and Timbuktu is 1000km away from anywhere things are shipped to in Mali and you can see other reasons why the price of goods seems high. All this is to say that just because in Mopti or Bamako or Dakar you bought x for a much lower price does not mean you are being ripped off.

There are different categories of shopping. Some are more susceptible to price inflation for tourists than others.

When purchasing things in the market from the women with vegetables and spices spread out on a low table or piece of sac on the ground or meat from a local butcher the chance that the price will be significantly inflated is minimal. They sell mainly to local people and if the occasional foreigner comes along it won’t even occur to most of them to up the price. If they do give a higher price it is liable to be on the order of a few cents (a case of asking 10 or 20 francs extra) and really not worth your getting into a froth over.

When purchasing goods in one of the shops of staple goods such as pasta, sugar, tea sweet biscuits you should know that the prices of these items are pretty well fixed. Bargening won’t get you anywhere and will probably annoy the shopkeeper.

Shops that sell more luxury items such as western cereals, cocoa power, cheese spread, toilet paper etc the prices are also fixed. The prices for these items are simply higher because they are more expensive to import and because the only people buying them are tourists or some of the wealthier citizens.

House wares, clothes and such are open to more discussion in general therefore you can be prepared to bargain some though again the amount your are likely to reduce the price is not excessive; probably a mater of 500 or 1000 f.

When purchasing cloth, turbans, or paying for tailoring be aware these are open to much more discussion and can vary from vendor to vendor tailor to tailor for the locals. It is also common for tourists to purchase a 4 or 5 meter length of cloth while here for a turban or to have a local style outfit made so these people are more likely to think of asking a higher price because you are a “toubob”.

Crafts, jewellery, etc. These are subject to the most varied prices. After all the cost is not so much in the value of the materials or the cost of importing it, but in the value placed on the item by the artist. The beauty of the piece and the time involved in making it give it its worth. Tourists are forever asking, “Did I get a good price for this?” “How much is this worth?” “How much should I have paid for this?” “Is this real?”

My answer is: How bad do you want the item? Are you happy with it? If you think you paid too much why did you buy it? If you can’t tell if the craftsmanship is good or poor I guess it is good enough for you.

The price asked for a craft item is based on a number of things, one being the material used. Some pieces use real silver and real agate and good quality leather etc etc. other is “tuareg silver” – a mix of silver and brass, glass or even plastic beads and scraps of leather. If you can’t tell the difference you might feel the price is high without realize it is because the materials are more valuable.

The more tourists are around that are willing to pay high prices for an item the less willing the vendor will be to budge, knowing that if you don’t buy it another will.

Settling the purchase price for such things is a discussion a give and take between the buyer and seller. When first negotiating, don’t show that you are too fixed on one item. Take the time to talk. If you are around for a few days come back more than once so the vendor knows you and you are more than just a tourist with a wallet. Tell sob stories about your family and your poverty. Keep it friendly there are no hard feelings-its just business. Decide how much you like the item and how much you are willing to pay for it. Be willing to walk away. If you think the price is too much don’t buy it walk away if the vendor wants to make the sale bad enough he will reduce his price and call you back. If he doesn’t he will walk away. In tourist season when dealing with the vendors or crafts in the city they will not agree to take a loss.

The price you can get will also depend on how badly the vendor needs money. The more he needs it the more willing he will be to sell at any price. In the low tourist season or out in the nomadic camps that don’t see many tourists you may encounter people offering very good quality jewellery for very little or be willing to settle for very little. I strongly discourage visitors from taking advantage of poor people who are likely selling personal jewellery even heirlooms for a pittance just because they need to eat. If you find yourself the recipient of such an offer, buying the item may be a good way to help the person while maintaining dignity, but please offer a fair price.

Before you decide that you paid too much for an item look at what it is: a handcrafted something that took hours, maybe days, to make. Consider what it would sell for in a specialty import store in your country of origin. Consider also that in purchasing such an item you are helping a whole family live with dignity instead of resorting to asking for handouts. And finally if you were happy with your purchase don’t let some other person spoil that by listening to him tell you that you paid too much or that she got a similar thing for less.

This goes for nights in the desert, camel rides and pinasses to Mopti too. If you think it is too much don’t do it. If you choose to pay for it don’t complain later that you got ripped off (unless of course you didn’t actually get the service paid for).