Beti, what do you have in your bag?, the old mama yelled from her house as I walked past.
This is none of your business, I thought. I was coming home from the little market in our village. The heat was brutal — I'm sure the only thing between that place and the sun was a piece of rusted corrugated iron. Had my head scarf on, a cloth around my waist. Looked like a real Iso woman.
Some onions, bananas and rice. I reluctantly revealed my purchases.
What did you pay?, she shouted.
Really? This is wrong. I am sure the whole world knows that you do not ask such private questions, especially when it comes to money. Knowing a bit how things work there, I relented.
Twenty, I said reluctantly.
Is this a form of interrogation? Same thing happened when my friend Salma taught me how to make peanut brittle.
What? You paid too much. Give me some!, She yelled out loud.
Great. Now everybody knows. It was obvious to me that I was not a real Iso yet.
Talking about money is a taboo in many cultures. In some Western cultures, you can hardly allow yourself to even think about someone else’s salary, let alone ask. What you paid for your new computer or shoes, even what you were charged for your dental check-up is off-limits in any conversation. You can release some of the ‘curiosity pressure’ about your new phone or blouse by explaining you got it ‘on a special’.
It is not really lying. The price was very special to you.
Reminds me of the quote “Money is the opposite of the weather. Nobody talks about it, but everybody does something about it.”
In other cultures they almost have a fun relationship with money — especially in informal markets. In Thailand, for example, you are expected to bargain for the price of that fake t-shirt or silk handbag you want to buy. It is like a game.
I got right into that when we had to go to Thailand for a conference. My husband couldn't believe what he was seeing — his somewhat shy wife turned into a negotiation monster, arguing and laughing with the sellers. Using the calculator as a weapon — and a translation device. Numbers are numbers in any language. He thanked me later — got that genuine imitation silk handbag for less than half the original price.
Soon afterwards, we had to go to Singapore. There was a stand in a shiny mall, selling shirts. My heart started to race. Bargaining! My previously gained experience taught me that you start small. If they think you are a big spender, they will give more discount when you want to buy two or more items.
The game was on ... I asked the lady what the price was for one shirt.
Good, I was going in for the kill. I almost giggled by myself. This is fun.
How much for two shirts?, I asked, enjoying my cleverness.
She looked at me for a long time with a bewildered look on her face. I almost saw pity there too.
Ten dollars, she replied slowly.
One shirt is five dollars. Then two should be ten.
With a red face, and a husband trying to keep up while in a fit of hilarity, I walked out of the mall very quickly. No looking back. I am sure if I did, I would have seen her standing there in disbelief, trying to work out how anybody could be so stupid. Learnt the hard way that there is no bargaining in the malls in Singapore.
Back to the Iso … My neighbour Deena and I were funeral buddies, so to speak. Always went together. While the men are at the grave, the women would sit together in the yard, wailing and waiting. Heart-rending to see them grieving in this way. Never got used to it. And I went to many. I also didn’t know that they would come and grieve with me in the same way many years later.
In the Iso culture, someone of the deceased’s family will always bring a piece of cloth to the mourning women. Everybody would put in a coin of a certain value. This money would cover some of the funeral expenses.
The unspoken rule was that I always ‘sponsored’ Deena with the funeral money. Read her story and you will understand. During one particular funeral, I wanted to be generous and I gave Deena a coin worth five times the expected amount. When the woman came around with the cloth, we threw in our coins. Then to my absolute horror, Deena took our four coins as change.
Nobody blinked an eye. I blinked a few times, though, trying to be nonchalant and Iso-like. For Deena, it was just a matter of opportunity. I couldn’t help wondering what peoples’ reaction in church would be if I were to put in a large note into the collection plate, and then took some change!
A few years later my husband and I were walking to the Sheik’s house for a visit. A friend of mine was coming the opposite way on the other side of the sea sand street. She had a huge bundle on her head.
Zina, what do you have on your head?, I shouted in a shrill Iso voice.
Went to the market to get flour, she equally shrilled back.
What did you pay?, I yelled.
My husband just smiled.