First price, last price and talking price – the ultimate guide to negotiating in Sierra Leone
Being new to a country and to the pricing system makes for an easy target. A good salesman can smell the naivety of a tourist and will gladly take advantage of that. So instead of charging the real price, they will add double or triple the price, laughing behind your back for not realizing the scam. It can make you feel a bit stupid after having found out later on that you paid the tourist price, often resulting in suspicion to anyone trying to sell you something. But knowing in advance on what prices are fixed, which ones are negotiable and how to recognize a scam can help a good bit.
In general, all food and drinks have a fixed price. Sellers on the street will seldom give you a fake price for their goods, and saying “I’ll give you 1000le,” when they ask for 3000le is insulting. This does not mean that you cannot negotiate. If you buy in bulk you can ask for the price to go down a little, but remember, that 1$ you might be saving can make a huge difference for the sellers, who often live on less than 50$ a month.
Prices are higher when buying in small local stores or in larger supermarkets. Here negotiating is not an option, even if sometimes the prices seem unbelievably high.
Example of fixed prices
Bottled water, small: 3.000- 5.000le
Packet water: two sachets for 500le or three for 1.000le
Loaf of bread: 500- 2.000le depending on size
Snacks (plantain chips, kanya): 1.000le
One stop with a shared taxi: 1.500le
An avocado: 5000le
Three apples: 10.000le
Battle of negotiations
Got your eye on a wood-carved tribal mask? You better start talking price, the term used for the, sometimes lengthy, process of negotiations. When done correctly it can leave both the buyer and the seller satisfied. Both parties engage in a respectful and humorous exchange of pleasantries to try and reach the ideal price.
Most items that are not edible fall within this category. Clothes, jewelry, art, and sunglasses to name a few, are always up for a good negotiation session. Sellers might start off higher in touristy places, such as the Big Market (link to article on Big Market), but they quickly beat the price down to keep you at their stall.
How to negotiate
It differs per situation, but in general you can expect the seller to give you double the price. It is not a rip-off, but merely taking a shot at getting the best price for his goods. Here’s a scenario you can practice before going into the field.
“How much for that lappa?”
“How much do you want to give me?”
“You tell me how much you want.”
“Give me 150.000.”
“What? Eh, that is too much,” this is where you can start walking away as if disinterested.
“Well, let’s talk price, what can you give me.”
“For this? 50.000.”
“No that is too small, give me the 120.”
Now is the time to decide whether you want to buy it or not. Getting the price down and not buying it in the end is considered poor etiquette.
“I like the lappa, 75.000 last price.”
“Give me the 80.”
“No 75, I buy it now.”
A done deal.
All of this goes with abundant smiles and overtly pained expressions when hearing the opponents ridiculous offer. Exaggerated head shakes, asking, “you want me to starve for this lappa?” or “how can I fly back home if I pay your high prices?” are all met with humor.
The man that tries to rip you off does so cunningly, using your inexperience as a means to make a quick buck. They are different from the merchants who are trying to get a good price. They are often motortaxi (okada) drivers, black market money exchangers or street sellers who hustle in any business available to them that day. You can recognize them by their behavior. When asking the price, they will pause, look you straight in the eye (a very rude thing to do in Sierra Leone) and say a ludicrously high price whilst carefully monitoring your response. There is no point in negotiating with them; it can turn into an argument as they will not budge to friendly bantering.
With some prior knowledge it can become quite the possibility to pay the real prices instead of the whiteman price. Don’t get discouraged by the big rip-off that happens in your first couple of days. Most interactions are a pleasure to experience and a good way to understand the customs of the people.
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Esther Kamara is a Dutch-Sierra Leonean that was born and raised in Amsterdam. After finishing her bachelor Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam she moved to Freetown, where she now works as a freelance writer and artist manager. Her brainchildren are otherworldly short stories and peculiar drawings of non-existing characters.