Fair Exchange by Deidre CreativeSoul
Seven cedis. That's how much the hair braider charged me for one of the flyest hairstyles I have ever worn. At a time when the cedi, Ghana's national currency, is in a nose dive against the U.S. dollar. I handed my friend a ten cedi note to give to the braider and told her to keep the change. That brought the total cost to a whopping two dollars and fifty cents.
I wanted to pay more, but I did not want to embarrass my friend who had arranged the appointment. When we left her house in a neighborhood of comfortable estates, I had carried enough to pay what I considered a reasonable amount, based on the last time I had my hair braided in Accra. That amount was still far below what I normally paid in the U.S., even to a sista working out of her living room rather than a trendy salon.
Carefully, I followed my friend across a busy highway and entered another world, far different from the security fences, generators, poly tanks, water heaters, guard dogs and expat eateries on our side of the road. This was the zongo, a name given to unplanned, predominately Muslim communities found throughout the nation. One main road ran through this particular zongo, shared by cattle, goats, chickens, motorbikes, a school, and a variety of small shops and street vendors.
We branched from the road and began to navigate a maze of narrow walkways lined with tiny one-room buildings where families made a home and enterprising Ghanaians conducted every kind of business. Music and conversation poured through some of the doorways, while others were blocked by carts displaying fruit, vegetables, candy, and other food for sale. We hopped over several stagnant puddles and flowing streams of murky liquid along the way until at last, we came to a corner building where several ladies sat on a long bench.
The braider was putting the finishing touches on one of their heads; over the next hour or so, I inferred that the rest of the ladies were friends or relatives of the braider. Inferred, because other than my friend and the African-American rappers mixed in with the hiplife videos playing on the TV inside the shop, no one spoke English, not even to me. English may be Ghana's official language, but Ghanaians of all ethnic and economic groups seem to prefer their local languages when talking to each other. In the zongo, like in most of southern Ghana, Twi was the dominant language (I think), but I was surprised to hear passers-by greet the shop ladies with the Hausa greeting sannu kana more often than the Arabic options salaam alaikum or alaafia.
In some ways, losing your ability to understand what is being said around you is a lot like losing one of your senses. I've begun to depend more heavily on body language, facial expressions, tone, and lastly, my small vocabulary of Ghanaian languages to make some sense out of my surroundings. So as the braider moved from one client to the next, I began to observe my surroundings, trying to minimize the piercingly direct Western gaze in a culture that operates largely by subtleties.
It was mid-afternoon, and there were many schoolgirls in colorful uniforms pausing to buy a sweet treat. Shoeless and partially clothed babies roaming freely along the rocky, littered ground. Older boys racing worn-out tires through the narrow alleyways. A small girl independently slipping sandal straps on and off her heels as she entered and exited the building. Her mother mixing cereal with a bag of milky liquid. The laughter of sister-girl gossip that must be universal to beauty salons everywhere.
So much life was blooming all around me that the obvious material poverty did not register until a boy came to fill two old tin cans with some kind of rocks that he crushed on a nearby pile. Being a writer, it is always tempting to script inner worlds for strangers, but I resisted assuming that I knew how they must feel about living, working, growing up, raising families in the zongo, and I didn't have the language skills – or more importantly, the relationships and trust – to ask. One thing was for sure: life in the zongo was a far cry from the estate side of the highway, even from most of the urban ghettos of North America.
Finally, my turn came. I asked my friend how much the style would cost, but she hushed me up before I could get the whole question out. “You just let her do it,” she said, and watched them begin before leaving to run some errands in a nearby market. The braider was quick, polite, and very skilled at her craft. Several times along the way, she paused to hand me a mirror and let me inspect her work. That is more than I can say for many a hairdresser I've patronized in the States: the ones who leave you in a state of anxious expectation (after waiting through half a day of double bookings), spun around in the chair at an impossible angle from the huge wall-mounted mirrors until the damage is done.
This lady wasn't even rough on my scalp, but that could have been due to the deep conditioner I put in my hair a few days before coming. She and the other ladies marveled at how soft and springy my hair was, how easy it was to comb in its natural state. (Honestly, I was pretty amazed myself. A travel-sized bottle of Mane 'n Tail, a plastic shopping bag and about fifteen plaits had cast a spell on these naps.) The braider worked her own magic, creating an intersecting grid of small cornrows on the right side of my head to contrast with the plump two-strand twists on the left. I had never seen such a clever style before entering the zongo. And I never imagined it would cost less than five dollars.
I wanted to say, “Are you crazy? That's way too low!” But it would have been inappropriate. The kind of rudeness stereotypically associated with Americans visiting foreign countries. So I went the tip route instead, and we left. My friend had brought me there because she wanted me to save money – as we walked back to her house, she asked how much such a style would have cost in the U.S. It was embarrassing to admit. But this was the price that the braider typically charged because it was affordable for the clients she dealt with. Even though I was still living off the dollars I had saved while working in the U.S., I felt like it would be obnoxious to insist on giving her two or three times that much, especially in front of everyone.
But I also felt like a highway robber. Not quite as exploitive as the chocolate companies who buy West African cocoa for a dollar a pound and make ten thousand on the finished candy bars and cocoa drinks, which individually cost more than a dollar in most Western countries. But closer than I felt comfortable with, because I hadn't come to Ghana to get over. I came to lend whatever skills and resources I had to the collective effort of making Africa strong again – strong enough to be a viable base for her long-lost children in the African diaspora. But how can you ever get ahead or get out of poverty conditions when a person whose money has been valued at four times yours is grossly underpaying you?
That's why I can't entirely blame the taxi drivers, market vendors and others in the developing world's informal economies for sharply raising the prices when they see foreigners, even repatriates, their often-unrecognized distant cousins. They may not be able to control the central banks and Forex bureaus, but they can certainly try to equalize the exchange rate where it counts – in their own pockets.
I still bargain, because some of the vendors can get really outrageous with the initial prices, even asking four times or higher than what they would accept from a fellow Ghanaian. Even then, the vendor's quote may be lower than the cost of the same item in the US, and here, the stakes are higher. In the U.S., the worker is making a standard wage, whether we consider it to be livable or not, and the company is usually not hurting for profits. Here, driving too hard of a bargain may end up costing someone a meal or some child their school fees, just so I can save five bucks and feel like I can hold my own in the market.
If I stick around and put down fresh roots here, I will likely be getting paid in cedis one day, and the bargaining skills will come in handy when confronted with merchants who still see me as a walking dollar bill. But while I am operating off a foreign cash reserve, I am willing to pay a little extra in the name of fairness. I'm also trying to figure out how someone back home can securely ship a case of Mane 'n Tail for my braider in the zongo. This is Africa, after all. Hard currency is far from the only means of exchange.
Deidre Creative Soul
Deidre CreativeSoul is a poet, photographer and publisher. Her debut collection,
Border Crossing: a poetic memoir, was released at the end of 2015 and is set primarily
in the small neighborhoods where she was born and raised on the edge of Washington, DC
and Prince George's County, Maryland. A traveler at heart, she has worked, lived and
studied in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston and most recently, New Orleans. She has
performed in nearly every city she's called home, including Womanifest, a quarterly
showcase of women artists in New Orleans, Black Friday, a bimonthly arts event in
Atlanta, and Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.
Deidre is a graduate of Emerson College's MFA program in Creative Writing and an
alumni of the Cave Canem Poetry Retreat. Her poems have appeared in several
publications including the anthologies Full Moon on K Street and Gathering Ground.
After teaching community writing workshops and college-level writing courses for
several years, Deidre led her first international poetry workshop in 2014 at Culture
and Development East Africa in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and gave her debut
performance in Ghana in February 2016.