“1,500 kwacha,” says the man in the market as we examine a second-hand tank top, which he priced at $10 CAD. I’ve avoided the market for most of my two months here, knowing that my bartering skills are lacking and not wishing to haggle over used clothing.
“Those are not the actual prices,” I say firmly, “those are mzungu prices,” referring to the term used to describe foreigners in Malawi. I know t-shirts typically sell for K50 to K100 (approx. $0.35 to $0.70 CAD). I am not at all ready for his response: he laughs at me. A knowing look and laughter that indicates we both know his prices are unreasonable.
“It’s not funny,” I snap. But he won’t lower his prices—probably because he can tell my friend really wants the top or because I insulted him. Either way, after some soul-searching and deep breaths we swallow our pride and return to the vendor, finally paying him K850 ($5.50 CAD). As I watched the bills being handed over, I know we’re being ripped off.
“It’s not really that much money,” my friend says as I sulk. “You would pay way more for this at home.” Perhaps that’s true, but as I tell her, “it’s the principal of it.”
It’s the same principal I couldn’t let go of a few weeks ago as I climbed into the back of a minibus in Zomba, a town about 65 kilometres outside of Blantyre. I sat down, and as my friend followed in behind me, I flipped down the seat in front of me for her. The conductor shouted that she should squeeze into the back row with me, so he could fit another passenger in the car to earn an extra fare. “No, four is too many,” I responded, referring to a local law that prohibits more than three to a bench.
But the conductor wasn’t having it. He flipped open the trunk of the minibus and directed a young man to climb over the seat. “THIS IS AGAINST MALAWIAN LAW!” I shouted futilely as the bus erupted in laughter at my outburst. I wasn’t sure why that was funny but I shoved over to let the man sit down.
As simple and inexpensive I may find these predicaments, I can’t help but care about those lost kwachas and the three-to-a-seat rule. Not just because I like my money or my space, but because rules matter. I like rules. I like price tags and generally agreed-upon worth. I like laws that were created for my transportation safety. After all, “it’s the principal of it.”
But some rules aren’t easy to enforce here in Malawi because another kind of rulebook has taken precedence—the kinds of rules that a society learns through trial and error. These are rules that govern how Malawians get from one day to the next. The kind of rules an alien such as me would not (and often do not) understand.
Requesting too much money for a tank top that the mzungu girls have their eye on is acceptable. It’s a rule that has been culturally learned because Westerners with their government-funded programs and NGOs generally bring money to Malawi.
Squeezing in as many people as is humanly (and sometimes not quite-so-humanly) possible in a minibus that ends up feeling like a clown car with way too many people, goats, and chickens stuffed in is acceptable. It’s a rule that decides it would be economically stupid for the minibus to leave the bus park before it is completely full.
As frustrating as this new rulebook can be, it’s useful to remember that things are often the way they are for a reason. Right or wrong, social rules often hold more weight than those in ink. But I still prefer price tags.