Culture and Ideas—Bronze: Putting on My Fayda Face

by Gwen Hopkins

I imagine it’s reassuring to see your own personal piece of checked luggage appear on the conveyor belt in the middle of this disorienting scene, but I wouldn’t know. In January 2007, I arrived in Dakar, Senegal for my semester abroad. Where my pack should’ve appeared next to the others on the baggage claim belt, there was just empty black rubber. There were four of us in total with missing bags, and we were advised at the Dakar airport that they would probably show up eventually and we should check back at the airport a couple of times a week until they did.

During that first week, I masterfully exercised a combination of faith that my bag would eventually come and repression of any feelings of needing it in the meantime. Trying to feel proactive, we found cheap replacements at the gas station store for our missing shampoo and conditioner, soap, razors, etc. Although each day found me feeling a little shakier about being without any of the things I had so carefully packed (clothes, mainly, but also books, raincoat, bathing suits, adapters, pictures, gifts for my host family, and a few pairs of shoes), I started out doing okay. I did, however, want to change my outfit.

I figured there had to be some expedient way for me to buy a tank top and a skirt that I could begin to alternate with my current shirt and quickly expiring linen pants. I wasn’t ready to tackle the traditional Senegalese system of purchasing a few yards of fabric and taking them to the neighborhood tailor, but I decided the vendors that sold clothes deja-fait, pre-made, could offer me the simple exchange of goods for money that I was looking for. I was so wrong.

I convinced Sarah and Andrew to go Sandaga Market with me after our orientation session the next day. None of us had been downtown yet – we were exhausted enough just learning how to navigate our neighborhood and interact with fruit vendors after our daily orientation sessions on Senegalese culture, history, and appropriate conduct. Sarah’s bags were missing too, so we had both steeled ourselves to this quest. Andrew, on the other hand, was just looking for adventure, up for anything. He’s one of the most buoyant people I’ve ever met, goofy and good-hearted: good support on a mission like this.

Sandaga extended on for blocks and blocks, vendor after vendor at tables and in shacks, selling skirts, cell phone covers, books for all ages in all languages, dried alligator parts, peeled oranges, café touba, rolls of fabric, t-shirts, beaded earrings and necklaces, peanuts and cashews, ripped DVDs, birds in cages to release for good luck, tables of shoes, on and on. Bright colors everywhere, people everywhere, weaving in and out of the backed-up bumper-to-bumper traffic, beaten-up cars and taxis and carts pulled by horses or donkeys, all crowding a street without any painted road lines or traffic regulations. Horns honking, beckoning vendors’ soliciting cries, children yelling, customers bargaining furiously. Somehow the color of our skin shone through all this hubbub. When Sarah, Andrew and I arrived, all eyes turned to see the toubabs, white strangers. Highlighting our inability to compete for space and air in the busy marketplace, our whiteness broadcast both our privilege and our vulnerability.

Sarah and I immediately got down to the task of finding skirts that it seemed like we would wear again. Noting our interest, the vendors got down to the task of inducing us to buy as many of their garments as possible for the highest price they could get. The displays of clothing were separated by precariously thin board, framed like rooms but open to the street and with no ceiling. Many-colored, many-tiered skirts hung from the three other walls, along with scandalous shirts and rhinestone-crusted jeans. Regardez-vous, they told us, the superior craftsmanship! The intricate lace along each level of each tiered skirt resembled a piece of multi-colored wedding cake more than a piece of clothing we could wear every day. Each time we explained that we weren’t looking for shiny fabric, or lace, or rhinestones, or velour, or really anything with tiers, a new vendor would pop out and usher us to his shop next door, promising us glorious options and showing us skirts that looked strikingly similar to the last booth’s: tight, garishly colored, and too fancy to wear every day.

Andrew, having no stake in this mission whatsoever, was totally in his element, adding to both the confusion of the bustling market and the comic relief. Sarah and I were getting bombarded by vendors and telling each other, I’ll be next door! I’ll be across the street! Sarah found an unobtrusive-looking green skirt but couldn’t get the vendor to drop his price below 8000cfa. We’d been told to go for 3-4000: $6-8. With the firmness of a foreigner who resolves not to get ripped off, she repeated non, monsieur, c’est trop cher! as we walked away from the vendor, leaving him alternately shaking his head in annoyance and entreating her to come back.

We walked on, getting increasingly tired and overwhelmed, our eyes beginning to lose focus and our ears blurring all the ambient noise into one continuous auditory assault. Then I saw it: a long, beige skirt. Plain, flowy, unobtrusive. I began to approach it just as Sarah’s vendor reappeared, thrusting the green skirt she’d wanted into her arms and insisting it was an insult not to make a purchase after beginning the bargaining process.

(Note to future travelers: this is not the case. Why else would there be a bargaining process? There is no obligation until a price is agreed upon. It is rude to name a price you would pay and then refuse to pay it, so bargain your own side carefully; but if the vendor refuses to drop his price, don’t let him convince you that you owe him anything.)

Confused and affronted, Sarah hesitated and then got dragged by the vendor back to his original shop. Meanwhile, I began my own negotiations. I had brought a 10,000 cfa bill with me, a dix mille, and the vendor was asking 12,000.

We would come to understand that wahauli, bargaining, is a science and an art. It takes calculating and improvisation, but most of all, it takes fayda – courage, pride, and attitude. The closest English expressions to having fayda are to man up or to have balls – but fayda is traditionally a characteristic of the strong Senegalese woman. I found this extremely refreshing (much more so than my mom’s way of saying, “She’s got ovaries,” or even less empowering, “She’s got oves”). The bargainer has to demonstrate fayda at all times to keep the respect of the vendor. For Senegalese bargainers, this respect is serious. For us, we were just trying to amuse the vendors enough so that they would like us and drop their prices.

The performance of the bargaining ritual is very specific. First, chat with the vendor about his or her family, day at work, and state of inner peace. Be complimentary but reserved about the vendor’s goods. Ask how much several other items are before addressing the one you really want, to hide your investment in it. You must have in mind your first asking price, your target price, and your maximum price. If you don’t know what price you should be aiming for, just divide the vendor’s initial price by three. No matter what the vendor offers as the price, react as though he has just told you that he wants to eat your pet dog for dinner: shocked, insulted, and disgusted. True possessors of fayda make a yelping noise like they have just been physically struck: eh?! This quick angry squawk is usually paired with clapping a hand to your chest as though it is suddenly difficult to breathe because of the insultingly high price.

This is what I came to love about bargaining: the attitude, the fayda. Bargaining is rare in the U.S. and apologetic when it does happen, a game of manipulation through playing on each other’s sympathies. “Oh, sir, I’m sorry, I only have three dollars with me,” or, “Oh no! Really?” (inhale through your teeth) “Oh man, I really like it, but I’m a student, and I just can’t…” Maybe the vendor will respond, “I can do five dollars off, but I really can’t go any lower than that.” In Senegal, it’s about the relationships and the performance. We got caught up in saving that extra dollar, that extra 50 cents like we were Senegalese women trying to make ends meet, sometimes to the point that I worried we were ripping off vendors who were actually struggling. Then again, the Senegalese shoppers who came to the table after us would never dream of paying the prices of our best bargaining achievements, cutting them in half, in thirds again. Ultimately, imitating the bargaining ritual was our way to prove that we admired the culture we were in, despite our obvious foreignness. That was both fun and crucial.

After you make a noise as though the vendor has just joked about stabbing your best friend, you take your hand from its “shock” position on your chest and put it in its “I insist upon my rights” position on your hip, bring out the other finger and wave it around for emphasis. Then you let him know just how wrong he is about that initial price. “Oh no, my friend,” you tell him in Wolof. “I live in Dakar! I know the real price!” Name a price that is much lower than anything you have ever seen before and insist that either you or a friend bought the same item he is trying to sell you at that price just recently. It is the vendor’s turn to look as though you have touched his child with your left hand or walked across his prayer mat with your shoes on. He scorns your ridiculous price and tells you how mistaken you must be. Possibly he lowers his initial price from three times as much as it should be to only twice as much, but he tells you he cannot go any further.

Now you have to really work your character to differentiate yourself from a typical tourist and earn his respect (or at least amusement). Give him your most skeptical, fayda-filled face and use as much Wolof as possible. Explain to him where you live in Dakar. Tell him where you go to school and what it’s down the street from. Tell him the name of your host family and your Senegalese name as a part of that family. For example, my family was named Faye, from the Serer ethnic group; my name was Astou Faye, Astou assigned to me by an attendant I’d chatted with at the store by the gas station. From what I can gather, Astou is the Senegalese equivalent of “Mary” or “Jane,” a typical Senegalese name which contrasted intensely with my actual appearance. As-TOU? was the reaction I normally got. AS-tou? They would ask incredulously, laughing uproariously, doubling over when I gave them my best why-are-you-laughing-when-I-am-obviously-Serer face.

By this time, they should like you enough to drop at least below your maximum price. If they aren’t dropping, or you’re really determined to get a good deal, tell them you will go find the price you want, turn on your heel and leave. If they don’t immediately follow you, you’re probably asking too little.

As I said, I had not yet mastered the art of fayda on this first trip. Rather than looking offended when the vendor named his first price, I just smiled apologetically – like a good American woman – and told him I didn’t have that much money with me. Smiling, I would later find out, is considered flirting. It is important to smile as infrequently as possible. Instead, channel all your nervous energy into sassy fayda. This can border on flirting too, but it is active and confident and will gain you respect – both because you are demanding respect, and because you will demonstrate that you don’t take yourself or your status as a total cultural stranger too seriously. Apologetic smiling indicates inferiority, weakness: you have already lost. It may endear you to whoever you’re talking to, but in a country where I was proposed to multiple times a day simply for being a white woman, endearment wasn’t necessarily something I was looking for more of.

The man told me he would go get the store’s actual owner and motioned that Andrew and I should sit down. We took a seat on some boxes in the middle of the store, clothes hanging down from the walls all around us, me holding my skirt, both of us wondering where Sarah was. After a long while by American standards and a short while by Senegalese standards, the new man appeared and shook our hands. Asalaam malekum, Malekum asalaam. We went through all the traditional greetings and assured him that every aspect of our lives filled us with peace. Then he said something in French and pointed back and forth between me and Andrew with a gleam in his eye. We looked at each other for a second, trying to decide how to respond – “Oui!” I decided impishly, linking my arm through Andrew’s and laying my head on his shoulder. The vendor laughed uproariously – at the possibility that we might be married, at the probability that we weren’t, delighted by our ability to play along. “Eh alors,” I raised an eyebrow back, “ici, c’est votre femme?” I pointed at the female mannequin next to him. He threw his head back again. “Ah oui! Ma femme!” He wrapped an arm around the mannequin and Andrew and I sprung to our feet to shake hands with his ‘wife,’ asking the Wolof greeting questions again with wide-eyed innocence.

The vendor smiled widely and told me that though he rarely sold skirts for so little, I could have mine for six mille. (I’m sure he routinely sold skirts for 3-4000cfa.) I thanked him profusely (and his wife); he said something in Wolof to the first man and then left. The first man came back and invited us to sit down on the boxes again. He sat down across from us and we looked at him expectantly. He looked back at us and smiled, and didn’t look away until we did: giggling, uncomfortable Americans. There was a long pause. We giggled more. “What is he waiting for?” we asked each other. “I don’t know, but we are being rude!” We tried to calm down and finally to break the silence with some questions about the weather, or about his family, to which he responded very warmly and then retreated into back into grinning silence.

Silence makes Americans uncomfortable. We ask each other fast questions, give each other fast answers, get nervous that a pause may be coming up in conversation and make up reasons to keep walking or to hang up the phone so that we avoid feeling awkward. In Senegal, I found that people felt no such pressure to engage me during every moment they were in my presence. Friendliness didn’t necessarily mean talking; it could be as simple as existing next to each other for a while. Sitting together on the beach or sharing tea in their houses, the Senegalese I met were content in silence.

Andrew and I assumed we were waiting for something – why else would he have asked us to sit down? – but we saw no sign of anything happening, no sign that the other man was coming back. We didn’t know where Sarah was and we had to be back for dinner, so after about ten minutes of giggling, silence, and stilted attempts at conversation, Andrew tried to broach the subject of speeding things up so we could leave. “Alors, vous voulez partir?” Oh, you want to go? The man sprung up immediately and offered me a plastic bag for my skirt. I handed him my six mille, he shook my hand, and we left him beaming and waving goodbye.

We walked back into the hustle of Sandaga, blinking and disoriented. “So…what were we waiting for?” Puzzling out the concept of sitting together on a business day for no apparent reason, with nothing to talk about, we had just began to laugh with giddiness and exhaustion when Sarah appeared, clutching her own black plastic bag. The bags were ubiquitous and said Sénégal on them in little silver script as though the whole country were one big gift store. We couldn’t handle another car rapide and allowed ourselves the indulgence of foreigners: we hailed a taxi and handed over the rest of our money, too exhausted to bargain anymore. (Taxis don’t have meters and prices are debated and agreed upon in advance.)

All three of us sat in the back of the cab, leaning against each other and watching the crowded streets from behind the safety of our windows. When I finally got home, I showed my host mom the skirt, my single prize after the exhausting afternoon. “Et tu as paié combien?” She asked me how much I had paid. “4000cfa,” I lied, knocking off four dollars. She looked unimpressed. “Pas mal,” she told me, trying to be kind. Not bad.


Gwen Hopkins received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Trinity College in 2008, where she also minored in French and Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She spent her sophomore winter break traveling New Zealand and her junior spring studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal. She is in the process of moving to Washington, DC and dreaming up her next trip.

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