For quite some time I’ve been desiring some chicken to eat. I’ve been subsisting off of eggs, bread, and bananas and the only meat I get is the ones prepared by Cameroonians which means that it always comes replete with maggi (the traditional pepper spice put on almost EVERYTHING here) and lots of oil. The maggi is ok in small quantities (which is never how it is prepared) but the oil is excessive. Also, the meat is almost always either beef or pork despite the abundance of very loud chickens and roosters that stroll about the streets or onto people’s porches.
I’ve asked Genesis about them (since we have about 6 that are always in our yard) and he said that they belong to random neighbors and at nighttime they all return to their homes. Somehow the same devil of a rooster finds himself wandering outside my window every morning at 3:00AM with the apparent unyielding desire to make the loudest morning calls he can. Some day I’ll eat one of you I often think as I rise out of bed.
Well, today I decided to ask Jones how one would go about getting some fresh chicken. I asked Deric this once earlier and he told me to go to a cold shop where they would sell it frozen. Unfortunately every cold shop I’ve been to sells only fish or beef or pork.
“Jones, can I talk to you for a moment” I asked. Luckily for me he was sitting outside the lab, apparently with nothing to do. He looked up with what may have been a trace of concern so I thought I’d jump right to the point.
“Where can I get a chicken?” He looked off into the street as if thinking.
“What kind of chicken?”
“I want a fresh one.”
“You can buy a live chicken—“
“No no, I didn’t want a live one,” I said, laughing at the thought of me walking around the house with a pet chicken. “I want one that’s raw, and cut.”
“Oh I see.” He thought some more. “If you go into the market…” he pointed down the street, “you can get a live chicken there.”
“But I want it cut…”
“Yes they will cut it there.”
“Will they take out the insides too?” I asked, making a scooping gesture with my hands.
“Yes, yes. They will clean it, take out everything, and you can go home and cook it.” This was delightful news. Not only was this the freshest chicken I’d probably ever eat, it was probably going to be the most bizarre experience I would ever had. However, as always, the issue of price was still to be settled.
“Jones…how much does a chicken cost.”
“Hmm…” he thought a bit. “A chicken can cost somewhere from 2500 to 3500…maybe 4000 for a big one. 3500 is a big one.”
“So if I got a big chicken, I’d pay 3,500?”
“Yes.” He said with a smile.
“So I should not pay more than 4,000 for any chicken.
“No!” he said emphatically with a few shakes of his head thrown in. It looked funny enough that I thought I’d ask the same question again just to see it but resisted the urge.
“Ok, I think I’ll buy one now then.” Jones looked over at a man that he had previously been talking to before I came.
“Uh…why don’t you wait and he will go with you.” He gestured to the man. I know the African tradition is to look stoic at all times but this guy didn’t exactly look happy to be going on this trip with me…and to be honest, neither was I. I didn’t want a babysitter. I told Jones I needed to go the house first before I could leave. Once I came back he looked around a bit.
“Ah, I wanted you to go with that man though. You should wait to go with him.”
“Because I want someone there who knows and can negotiate the price to make sure you get a good price.” I smiled.
“Nah, that’s OK Jones.” I replied, skipping off the steps into the sidewalk. “I think I can manage. Just don’t pay more than 4,000 right?”
“No!” His reaction was worth asking again.
Now, I don’t consider myself a master trader—far from it. However, I will say that battling for a price is something I do enjoy. Before I understood this, whenever I saw Mom trying to get a “deal” at the mall, I was somewhat embarrassed and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t pay the price that was given to her…just like the supermarket. However, I would later work in the mall as a sales rep and I have to experience other people trying to negotiate the price down with me! It was odd because I couldn’t come home to Dad and tell him that I lost us money because some bloke at the mall argued the price down on me. But I also didn’t want to see us just lose business all together…so I learned.
Trading is mostly a mind game. You have to be willing to deal with people getting angry at you, you have to be willing to get angry at other people, you have to be willing to make up stuff, and you have to project yourself as in control. It’s hard because both parties are fully aware that the other party is trying to do all these things, so it’s a matter of who cracks first.
As I walked up the street, I spotted the massive clump of people: the market. This was the smaller of the two main markets in Buea. This one sold almost everything from shoes, TVs, pots, and shirts to limes, tomatoes, and yams. I wandered a bit looking for my target: the chickens. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect.
Dang, are these chickens even here? I wandered a bit, looking for some sign of fowl. I started to wander into the deeper parts of the market when I finally smelled it before I saw them.
At last, I thought as I walked towards them. I could see them now, two rows of pens (sp?) full of white fluffy chickens. I’ll need a prop first, something to use as a distraction. I spotted a lady selling bananas and bought 5 off her. As I entered the row of pens, I slowly peeled off a piece of a banana and chewed on it. Multiple sellers in the same location are the best possible solution because it’s easier to walk away and you can make them anxious by talking to other sellers.
“Hey! Hey! You want to buy a chicken?!” A lady sitting on top of the fence of the pen gestured over to me with a stick in her hand.
“Maybe later,” I replied, continuing to walk down the aisle. I continued to walk a bit, making sure to look at each clump of chickens. Every time I stopped to look, the owner would leap to their feet and attempt to show me their chickens. As I declined, they would return to their spot and call after me as I left.
Ok, I’ve seen all the chickens. Now I’ll go back to the first lady and feel her out a bit. I placed my hand on the side of the wooden fence and stared down at her chicken, remembering the 4,000 number in my head.
“How much for that chicken?” I asked, gesturing randomly at one of them.
“Which one, this one?!” I nodded.
“3,200.” She replied happily. I tossed one of the banana peels and began to open the next one as I walked walked away, shaking my hand.
“Wait, wait! How much do you want for it? These are good chickens!” She cried, picking one of the chickens up by the feet and hanging it, upside down, before my face to expose it’s fluffy pink belly. “They are clean!” She continued, pulling away tufts of feathers from the belly as the chicken clucked and thrashed from being held in such a manner. I turned and looked at the chicken.
Is this clean? I have no idea what a dirty chicken would look like, I thought confusedly.
“Ok. 2-5” I said. In Buea that means 2,500XAF.
“I can tell you are student yes?” I nodded. “Yes, I will sell to you for 2-6. And then, cleaning and cutting is 200. So 2-8 total.”
“No. 2-5 for everything.” At this she dropped the chicken (on its head for that matter) incredulously. I started to walk away.
“I will look for some more chicken then.” I replied, starting on my third banana.
“Hey! Do you want me to hold this for you?” She pointed to the dazed chicken on the ground. I shrugged and continued to walk away. After a couple more exchanges like this with two more sellers, each one thrusting their chicken in front of me to show their pink bellies covered in white feathers (although most had the decency to hold the chicken upright, I came upon two men who were in front of a pen that had only 5-6 chickens left. I was skeptical, as this likely meant they were less desperate to sell the ones they had (one of the pitfalls of buying early in the day is they do not get as desperate to sell what they have yet but you do have the better selection to choose from), but I listened anyway. The two had watched me argue and barter with the other sellers and started off right away by picking up a chicken and putting it in front of me.
“2-7 for this chicken.”
“Why should I buy your chicken for 2-7? There are many chickens here for 2-7.” I stared at him. “2-4.” To be honest, I had no idea what a 2-4 chicken should have even looked like. I was negotiating here based purely on the principle that if I found a 2-4 chicken, they would try their hardest to sell it to me for 2-8. He dropped the chicken to the ground.
“I cannot sell you for 2-4. I bought these chickens in Molyko for 2-5. How can I go buy a chicken for 2-5 and then sell for 2-4?”
“Then why’d you pay so much?”
“Listen,” he said, appearing exasperated. “People can come from Douala and buy a chicken and they would sell you this same chicken for 3-5!” He said, gesturing at the pen next to him.
“I’m not in Douala. I’m in Buea. 2-4.” He looked away and I sat their waiting for a bit. After about 5 seconds his friend said something to him and then he turned to me again.
“Ok, I just talked to my friend here. He said to take off 100 to be nice to you. We will sell you for 2-6 then.”
“This is not a 2-6 chicken!” I declared. “This chicken is small! Show me that one!” I gestured at another chicken next to it. Is that chicken even bigger? I can’t tell. BLAST! I have no idea how to tell the difference between these chickens. He picked up the other chicken. “Too small!” I cried. His eyes widened at me to the size of tennis balls as he seized the chicken back up from the crate.
“This is not a small chicken. Here, take it!” He shook the chicken at me, wanting me to hold and feel its weight for myself. I already felt bad enough for bartering the price for a chicken that I would ultimately send to its death, the last thing I wanted was to be holding the thing by its wings…not to mention I had no idea what the thing had or had been touched by. Nonetheless, refusing to grab the chicken would reveal myself to be a chicken indeed; I had to grab it. I grabbed the chicken and shook it (gently but not too gentle).
“See? This chicken is not so big.” I began to lower the chicken gently to the ground, thought better of it, and just let it drop before looking at the guy again. “2-5.”
“I cannot sell it for 2-5!” he yelled. At this point I thought about it for a bit.
Am I really arguing over 100XAF? Over 20 cents? For some chicken?
“Ok, 2-6 for the chicken, and then 200 to have it cleaned.” I replied as I paid him. As they took the chicken behind the stall to cut it up and gut it, I thought a bit more on what the carpenter had once said to me when I asked why he merely accepted the price most people offered for his goods (“People here, we work only to make our daily bread. If we have made that, if we can eat at the end of each day, then we are fine.”). Why was I arguing over 200-300XAF and declaring myself to poor to pay their price? The difference was less than 2 quarters yet I fought it as if I needed that. Had I just deprived someone their daily bread? I looked over at the other sellers, bored, as they stared gloomily at the ground around them. The man returned and handed me a black plastic bag with a chicken’s toe sticking out. And here’s my reward for spending all that time arguing I thought as I walked away.
Despite this, I was immensely pleased that I had done so well. 2,600 was near the low end of what Jones told me, and honestly I had no idea what a small chicken even looked like. As I passed the lab on the way back to the house to freeze it, I thought I’d pop in and show Jones my work.
“Hey Jones,” I motioned for him to come over. When he was outside I placed the bag in his hand with the toe pointing angrily into the sky. “How much would you pay for this chicken?” Jones shook it a little bit and looked off into the distance.
“Perhaps…I would pay…3,500…or somewhere around there.” Yes! Victory! I smiled from ear to ear and did a little dance on the steps. Jones looked at me, very surprised.
“I paid 2,600 for this! I argued the sellers down!” He smiled a big smile and gave me a high five.
“You are beginning to become like one of us now!” He said with a smile. “You just need to speak pidgon.” He added. It was true. Had I been able to speak pidgon, I probably could have shaved another 100 or 200 off.
All in all, it was a great experience and I had to fight the urge to go back and buy another chicken.