The Six-Thousand-Bob Job

A home on the other side
A home on the other side

Ever gone for negotiations? At a negotiation table, you mostly meet people at the furthest extremes. The bride’s mother wants a grand wedding, 12 plus 9 cows for dowry and a promise of a honeymoon in either Zanzibar or Istanbul. The groom’s spokesman thinks otherwise. So he clears his throat, looks at his watch with the expression that he doesn’t have time and then looks the prospective in-laws in the eye.

“Our in-laws, look here. We did not come to buy the State House. We did not come to suggest that you take us to Mecca for pilgrimage. All we came for is a girl whom our son has been naughty enough to sweet-talk. And we have not changed our intent. With us your girl will be happier and healthier. But now you speak as if we came to buy a kidney…. We shall give you two goats and a hen for the ushers.”

The bride’s father, who has been silent all along, signals their spokesman and whispers something. Then the spokesman nods vigorously and starts:

“It is not just a human body we are giving you. Please let’s respect each other. The girl whose hand you seek is a graduate. We have taken her to school and we are not even adding the school fees to the bargain. We have taught her good manners and how to be a good mother. Will she mother our children? No. She will be mother to children you will call yours. We even don’t know if the young man runs at night or not. Any family with a level head will quickly accept the offer without a word. But it is good you’ve shown your character. We now fear that perhaps if we let our daughter go, it is to either hungry or stingy people we are sending her. (…) Now, grand wedding, 12 plus 2 cows and Zanzibar – final bargain!”

At this time, both sides must maintain their adrenaline. Otherwise I’ve heard of people who exchanged blows over the dowry scale. The negotiators will slowly move from their extremes and finally settle on five cows and three goats payable within three months after the wedding. And the mother-in-law never mentions Zanzibar again.

Those are bargains for you. But I’ve personally  grown up with this problem with negotiation. I don’t like traders who give a price and tell you that you could still negotiate. If it can go lower, why then do you start up there? If you say your jacket is 1k, stop there, otherwise you are a thief.

My mother, on the other hand, has the medicine for such. There’s this day we went to buy a pair of shoes for my elder sister. The guy said 2k, negotiable. She laughed so much the seller became uneasy. Then she said she had 50 bob. She called him all the good names north of Limpopo until eventually the shoes went at 300 bob. All along, I went through their bargaining like someone whose kinsman runs naked at the market centre.

Anyway, too much verbosity already. Let me get to my gossip.

I just remembered the last time I went for negotiations and laughed how come I hadn’t inherited this gene. Someone had advertised that they needed a house help. I had quickly wired an aunt back in the village and she came running. So the guys asked me to take her for introductions and negotiations. You see, this was a Caucasian family and I expected she’d give me a tip if everything went well.

So we arrive and the man at the gate points at the far right corner of the compound. People still own large compounds in the city. We walk there and find the couple taking the Chinese black thing they drink in cups the size of bottle tops. Every time we watched a Bruce Lee movie, people said the liquid in those bottle tops was a drug against hunchback. As I see them, my mind tries to picture them with a hunchback. Bad manners.

We are welcomed and I tell my aunt not to touch anything because these Ching Chongs eat snakes and dogs. Soon the negotiations begin.

The lady has stayed around for some years so she understands Swahili fairly well. She tells us that they need a house-help (says ‘maid’ but who cares whether it is house manager or house slave or house-anything provided the cash is healthy?). She’ll look after the house. Look after the kid (about to turn 2). Take care of the dog (I think of that Ching Chong visitor who may want to celebrate a birthday over a dead dog’s tail). Do the laundry using the machine and accompany mademoiselle to the mall for shopping. We say we understand. Then the real part comes.

Negotiating the salary.

She says she is offering 6k. Arabs call it sitta aalaaf, elfu sita in Shakespeare’s Swahili. We look at each other, aunt and nephew. I smile. Perhaps it is six thousand Euros. Or it could be Yens. I ask the lady what she means. She says six thousand in the local currency. Our baloons deflate.

Just to confirm, I ask if the 6k is the daily salary, exclusive of lunch. The lady talks to her husband in Chinese and she tells us it is monthly. She’s been smiling since she saw us.

I tell my aunt let’s go. Let’s get out of here. On my mind I am thinking how bad dog meat makes of someone’s mind. You see, I tell her, that’s why we didn’t take that drink of theirs!

The end of this story is that the Ching Chongs remain adamant. After an hour’s bargaining, she adds only 200 bob. Yet we came planning on at least 50k.

They say they pay that because it is not a graduate. Hey, to mean a graduate has two stomachs? Or that if you never saw university doors you can eat stones and still get laid the whole night? I know professors who teach that Pluto is a planet and preachers who say God is white like snow. Yet I am still to find this dummy who will feed his kid on rock pebbles every midday and say he is done with proteins.

So because you have decided to be here, you accept that tin walled house by the riverside. You negotiate with life and finally accept to stay at a hood named after Azania’s Soweto. When it rains you can’t reach your home.  But if you successfully swim home, there will be no demarcation between your house and the public toilet 300m away. Sometimes you will get what to eat.

Maslow didn’t separate the needs of a poor guy from those of a rich guy. If it is food, food it is and every breathing soul must eat. Imagine a guy taking home a pay of six-zero-zero-zero shillings, what a conspiracy nature pulls! It squeezes all the juice in the life of those that cross over from the village. They soon end up owing everyone everything in the neighbourhood. If length is measured in metres and weight kilometres, debt and credit those sides are measured perfectly in their names. Debtors embed their names in porcelain books and the only escape is by suicide.

This woman will need pick-wear and heeled shoes for Christmas. She will need STI drugs occasionally. She will need red lipstick and school uniform for the kids. Yet her employer gives her 6k and reminds her that graduates have rumen and reticulum.

How will her kids grow up knowing how to skate? What tv programme will they narrate to their classmates? How do they distinguish between a rodent and a pet? What do they know and what don’t they? When you answer these, you are essentially giving reasons why society has destitutes.

(Okay, okay, word count you are actually a freak. The red button is blinking which means that with the laziness of this generation, even I won’t manage to read through this article for editing.)

At her death bed, she will reflect and ask herself why she didn’t commit suicide that year they asked her to cook pilau with dog meat. She will ask herself if there has been any justification for her struggle. The truth eventually sinks, but late. It is like that campus guy who spends two years looking at the pictures of his crush. She is expensive and in a different league. Sometimes he looks through the curtains as she passes to her hostel. Then luck comes, he wins her and discovers that her heels are cracked and she even shaves a beard every 3.30 a.m.