I’m not new to the market thing. As a former resident of China, and extensive traveler in Southeast Asia, I know a thing or two about markets. I’m always curious to check out the markets in new cities that I visit, to soak up some of the culture and pick up a few trinkets and/or a piece of art along the way.
Dakar has a few local markets around town specializing in everything from fabric to art to used clothing. Mel took me to a market mainly focused on art, but luckily they had a few shops that also carried fabric, jewelry, and other knick knacks. The first thing that drew my attention were all the bright colors; anyone who knows me knows I love color! I felt like a kid in a candy store, looking from one thing to another, not sure what to buy first. Some of my favorite things were the colorful, handwoven baskets, fabrics in all sorts of colors and patterns, paintings of local scenes and people, and all the handmade jewelry.
One thing that’s essential when shopping at a local market is knowing what the going rate is for certain items. This information is vital in order for you not to be ripped off. In China, I knew whether the price they quoted was good or not, based on my experience (and that of others) over the years. As a foreigner, you just have to expect that you are going to be ripped off to some degree, but you want to minimize it as much as possible. They see my blonde hair and American accent coming, and I might as well have dollar signs floating around my head. As a seasoned market shopper, I drive a hard bargain and am adept at negotiating. But in Senegal, I had no idea what I should expect to pay for anything, neither did I have a firm grasp on the exchange rate from CFA to USD. Mel had only been to a fabric market here in Dakar once, so she didn’t know normal prices either. We took the offer them half of what they quoted us approach, which sometimes worked, but other times did not. Even so, we weren’t sure whether or not we were getting a good deal.
As we walked through the market, lots of people tried to get us to shop at their stands. It was pretty overwhelming, so I tried to ignore whatever they were saying to me. When ignoring didn’t work, I said in English, “Sorry, I don’t speak French.” They would then bust out their spiel in almost fluent English. Senegal’s official languages are French and Wolof, and around town I haven’t heard much English, so I was definitely struck by the amount of English spoken by the vendors. Mel and I became everybody’s “sister,” whereas in China, everybody was “friend.”
We quickly realized that stopping into a shop just to browse was frowned upon, and you would quickly get literally roped in if you went into a shop. More often than not, vendors would physically grab us, pulling us back into their shop or not letting us leave. Another tactic was to block us into their shop and not let us leave until we bought something. We had to forcefully tell them that we did not want to buy anything, and to let us go. Regardless of us being firm, they would repeatedly grab us and try to pull us back into their shop. I haven’t experienced this type of aggressive behavior at markets before, and I was definitely put off by it. Not all the shop owners were like this, as you can tell from the picture above, but there were enough of them that it was noticeable.
Another nuance we found while shopping at the Senegalese market was that many shop owners would agree to one price outside of their shop, but once you came in to buy it, the price would jump back up. We would argue that we were not going to pay a higher price when we had agreed upon a lower price, and they would resort to grabbing us to keep us in their store. Another tactic used quite often was for the vendors to tell us how poor they were and how much they needed the money for this or that. Now, I know that most of the Senegalese people live in poverty, and that they probably do need the money, but begging is not going to make us buy something, especially if it’s something we don’t really want. I feel very bad about the poverty situation in this country, but that does not mean I am willing to pay an exorbitant amount for any one item. That’s not a long term solution to the problem. One tip I do have is to go to the market with small bills only- 1,000s and 500s- because oftentimes they didn’t want to give back any change if you gave them more than the total. Instead, they tried to give you change back in the form of other goods in their shop.
My experience at the market was more positive than negative for sure, and I managed to get some really cute stuff to take home and remind me of my time in Dakar, but I will say that the constant harassment by the vendors eventually frustrated us to the point that we decided to leave earlier than we had anticipated.