you must bar-GAIN

The bargaining culture is Uganda is serious. For example, we take boda-bodas (bicycle taxis) from our house into town most days. The cost is pretty well accepted to be 300 shillings. Everybody knows this. And yet, when we get off the bikes, usually the guys tell us 500, and we have to bargain them down to the correct price. Some of it is the Mzungu Tax, but beyond that it's just a part of life here.

The same thing happens in the markets, buying vegetables and delicious mangos. But the formula is pretty standard. They say it costs more than it does, you say you couldn't possibly pay more than way too little, then you agree on something in the middle. Pretty standard, at least in theory.

On the bus back from Rwanda, we met an Australian homie. It seemed only natural, what with us being the only white people on the bus, to get to talking. Sure enough, he was also hiding out from the economic apocalypse in a place where the cost of living is a little more tolerable. We got to chatting in line waiting to get our passport stamped, trading war stories about our time here.

When we went to buy our Ugandan visas, this silly man tried to pay with Australian dollars. In one sense, I guess, it's not that silly, since it's a stable currency from a serious country (In fact, looking for a sweet picture, I just learned it's the sixth most traded currency in the world. Go figure). On the other hand though, as he told us, "our money is made of plastic." We were waiting outside of the office when he came outside with a smirk. "I gotta find one of these guys to change Australian currency, mate."

When we crossed the border, naturally, there was a crowd of guys trying to give us "good rates" to buy Francs, Shillings and other oddly-named colonial holdover currencies. But to no one's surprise, nobody was too excited about buying this strange currency from a funny-sounding white man. Although a few guys actually HAD Australian dollars, nobody wanted to buy more. Luckily, we had some extra shillings, and told him we'd be happy to trade one semi-worthless currency for another.

(Quick Backstory- Getting cash in Rwanda is damn near impossible. You can't just go to an ATM, for some reason. Instead you have to go to the big fancy bank, go upstairs into a big fancy office, and do some kind of strange voodoo international banking transaction. So just being able to get back to where you stick your card in a machine and it spits out a huge pile of money was pretty novel. And coming from Rwanda, offering to hand over a solid amount of local currency seemed like a much bigger deal.)

Getting back to the point. We set in to bar-GAIN with this Australian over the exchange rate for $100 in plastic funny money (after the fact, we determined that it should be worth ~170,000 shillings). Only this time, the bargaining took a decidedly different turn:

Aussie- An Australian dollar is worth about 80 cents US.
Field Director Philips- OK. What's that in Shillings?
Aussie- I dunno. What's the exchange rate?
Field Director Philips- Eh. Call it 2,200.
Aussie- OK. Why don't you just give me 140,000.
Field Director Philips- 140,000? C'mon that's not enough. We're not doing this to make a profit. Here's 160,000.
Aussie- No, no. That's too much. Gotta be.
Field Director Philips- No take it. It's fine. Seriously. Go buy your visa or the bus will leave you behind.
Aussie- Alright. Cheers, Mate.

(Sometime later, back on the bus)

Aussie- I think you gave me too much. Seriously, take back 10,000.
Field Director Philips- Fine, fine. But only if you tell me who this Australian dude on the bill is.
Aussie- (laughs) People always ask me that! I have no idea!

In retrospect, maybe kind of a crappy story. Take my word for it, though, when you have to bargain/haggle over just about every little thing you buy, a bargaining session so backwards is funny, noteworthy and a damn solid story. Our Ugandan friends get a kick out of it when we tell them this story of how white people bargain with each other, since we are all (allegedly) terrible at bargaining to begin with. And the guys at the border thought it was a pretty funny scene, too. So if you're hating, get off my back.


  1. I love your blog! I've read it all since daughter Emily's joining you soon.

  2. UPDATE: Plus the foreign exchange guys (also known as banks) in Rwanda turn up their noses and won't except Ugandan Shillings. Keep in mind they're next door neighbors.

    It's called Mzungu Reverse Bargaining.


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