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I was recently traveling in Dakar, Senegal. I was there visiting an American friend, I will call her A, who has been teaching English language at a local high school for three years. One evening we were hailing a taxi across town, accompanied by a friend of A who is also an American and a high school teacher in the city; I will call her B.

My friend negotiated the price of the taxi prior to our taking a seat, as is the custom in Senegal. The taxi man insisted that the price was 2,500 CFA (500 CFA: $1US: £0.62BPS) and A insisted that we pay 2,000 CFA, the price that the Senegalese routinely pay to get across town. The taxi man feigned to drive away but when he saw that she wasn’t going to concede, he pulled over and indicated that he would drive us for her price. As we piled into the taxi, the driver made a comment about the normal price being 2,500 CFA. A responded that she knows the normal price and insisted that they had already arranged the fee and that she wouldn’t change the price.

This was not the first episode during my visit when the taxi negotiation process initiated a brief sidebar from my friend about the tiresome everyday dilemma of arranging a price and then having the taxi man continue to discuss the unjustness of the price, despite having already agreed upon one.

A and I had debated the process to some degree of detail during previous encounters. I suggested that the re-negotiation of the taxi price (once she was inside the vehicle) might be a tactic that works with some degree of success in obtaining the additional 500 CFA. She explained that she understood this point but that as someone who lives in the country and travels by taxi daily, the re-negotiation of the price is fatiguing and frustrating.

On this particular occasion, B said of the taxi man as we were seated: ‘Now he [the taxi man] is going to pout the whole way.’ This statement sparked a related statement from A about the trials of the taxi hailing and paying process. I said that I didn’t agree with the use of the word pout; B said that she had merely been ‘trying to make us laugh’.

I said that the man was clearly dissatisfied with the fare arranged but perhaps was in a situation where – as a person presumably with a family, fiscal responsibilities and any other level of personal problems – it was necessary that he work for very little. I will expand upon this notion in this blog, referring to what Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe describes as the barter economy within the cash economy that has developed in many African nations following the social and economic transformations that accompanied the 1980s World Bank-imposed structural adjustment programs.

The arguments that A and B alternately articulated were that (a) the real material costs of the taxi trip as well as the man’s salary were being sufficiently covered in the 2,000 CFA; (b) because they were living in Dakar, they should not be subjected to a ‘tourist tax’ and should pay the ‘normal price’ for a local; and (c) because this was a repetition of an almost daily occurrence, it is ‘impossible’ to ‘give an extra dollar’ after every similar taxi haggling episode. The foundational comprehension was that the taxi man (and the many taxi men with whom this same scenario had played out on prior occasions) was getting paid ‘sufficiently’ for his labour and this rendered A and B’s understanding of his appeal for additional, unwarranted, funds as greedy – as either economic coercion or a form of begging (neither of the women ever directly characterised the man as such, the issue arises over the value accorded to the man’s labor, a subject which I will return to later in this blog).

Begging, Bartering and Haggling as Economic Coercion within the Informal Economy

First, I want to critique the somewhat prevalent idea that has emerged in the media and blogosphere that ‘Africa: [is] A Continent of Beggars’, or that Africans are ‘a race of beggars’. These blogs criticize what the authors perceive to be African cultural and social traits that produce and endorse forms of begging and haggling. A blog posted to Missionaries in Service to Africa explain child beggars in Addis Ababa by stating, ‘TIA’ or, This Is Africa – as if that was explanation enough. One person rhetorically (I suppose) asks of Africans: ‘What do you say about a people whose lives are collectively lived as a race of beggars?’

Others have romanticised poverty and the practice of begging in Africa. John Ilffe, for example, believes that, ‘Africa’s splendour lies in its suffering. The heroism of African history is to be found not in the deeds of kings but in the struggles of ordinary people against the forces of nature and the cruelty of men’ (Iliffe). Such ponderings reduce Africans to victims, whose cultural value is the result of their material (and inevitable) suffering.

Mostly, however, begging, haggling and price extortion in Africa have been criticised and increasingly seen as reflective of a cultural phenomenon (a particular African ‘backwardness’) that is at least partially responsible for continued underdevelopment in SubSaharan Africa. In this way of thinking, haggling, re-haggling and price extortion are conflated with begging and as such there is an increasingly accepted notion that forms of begging affect all levels of African society: At the topmost level, African presidents ‘beg’ for development aid and ‘hand outs’. Government officials are ‘beggars in uniform’ who ask for ‘small iced water or Fantas’ at roadblocks and airport checks. At one point, one of the bloggers concedes, ‘I know they are underpaid, but come on, begging for money from the populace is not cool.’ This idea that beggars and price extortionists are lazy and/or greedy abounds in the popular imagination. Stories of beggars renting children to evoke pity in Pretoria, South Africa have received considerable Internet attention.

The statements made loosely by my friends in Dakar about the re-negotiation of taxi prices fit with the notion of the individual’s (in this case the taxi man) actions as greed-driven: He is already receiving a salary for his work and therefore should not haggle and re-haggle for ‘extra’ money, regardless of how inadequately paid he is. According to this line of thinking, he should accept the low wage in silence and without ‘pouting’ during the drive. But is the taxi man’s choice the choice between an insufficient fare or no fare?

Claims like, ‘Africa is a continent of beggars‘ and related arguments that Africa is prone to corruption imply that there is a specifically ‘African cultural root’ to these complex socio-political processes (recall the missionaries statement: TIA, This is Africa, as if that says it all). Such arguments demonstrate a legacy of colonial racism, having their roots in the colonial projections of Africans as ‘Peter Pan children who can never grow up, [and] a child race’ – the very arguments that justified colonialism as a form of benign paternalism (Fyfe).

These arguments dismiss the historical, political and economic foundations of the expansion of practices of haggling and bartering in contemporary African society. I now move towards a discussion of the economic projects that have enabled the expansion of Africa’s parallel economy – and the flourishing of the related practices of begging, haggling, re-haggling and economic coercion.

Some Structural and Material Roots of (re)Haggling Practices

A consideration of Achille Membe’s notion of the barter within a cash economy can allow us to more fully understand the phenomenon of haggling, re-haggling (by which I mean recommencing the haggling price once a price has already been mutually agreed upon), begging and other forms of informal economic transactions (throw in your own preferred term here: everyday corruption, economic coercion, small-scale corruption, etc.) in places like Dakar.

Dependency theorists have illustrated the complex ways in which accumulation (development and growth) and poverty (underdevelopment and decline) occur in tandem and systematically – one on each side of a continuum. The argument discounts the theory of ‘modernisation’ that has historically underlined most development ideologies, i.e. the idea that development follows a set path (and that national development occurs in relative isolation). Instead, poverty and development exist on a continuum, one that is linked through complex systems of exploitation (Walter Rodney argued this in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa). Insomuch as haggling and bartering are socio-economic mechanisms to supplement income (please note that this article does not consider the practice of religious alms giving, the taalibe or the role of marabouts, which could be the subject of its own blog post), an understanding of the production of poverty (and the simultaneous production of wealth in other territories) is one factor that disproves the idea that haggling, bartering and re-haggling are reflective of the race, ethnic heritage or culture of the individual.

Another factor in producing a climate that haggling and related practices are the social and economic consequences of World Bank and IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes (SAPs).

The 1980s African debt crisis was created by a variety of factors (much more complex than the commonly attributed ‘poor African leadership’ theory), including irresponsible over-lending by private creditors seeking high returns, the tendency towards one product commodity economies, the targeting of developing countries for high interest loans, the global monetary shock of 1979-81, trade protectionism in Northern countries, the depreciation of the US dollar, the prolonged drought of 1981-84, among other factors (see African Debt Revisited).

In response to the debt crisis structural adjustment programmes were imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a means to ‘create macroeconomic stability’ through privatisation, the lowering of trade barriers and massive decreases in public spending, particularly on services and civil salaries.

It is largely accepted that these programs lead to systemic macroeconomic instability across the continent and that these policies drove countries of the global south into ‘debt crisis, austerity, decline and conflict’ (Bond) and ‘acute material scarcity’ (Mbembe). One of the byproducts of civil salary cuts has been the increase in practices of haggling by civil servants, teachers and government employees.

This means that while public services – such as the replacement of a lost national identity card or primary or secondary education – have official costs (in the formal economy) they often are now accompanied by supplementary costs that are pocketed by the civil servant as a means to supplement lost salary (informal economy), this is one manifestation of the barter within a cash economy.

What is Meant by a Barter Within a Cash Economy

Most simply, this refers to the coexistence of systems of both goods-based and cash-based exchange for services rendered, marked by the existence of parallel economies within one system: One formal and the other informal. The two economic systems coexist and often overlap, with everyone participating in both, including foreigners, multinationals corporations, local government officials and foreign government officials (Mbembe traces the lineage of the informal economy in Francophone Africa to Gaullist practices during colonial and early postcolonial relations).

Alongside the slashing of civil servant salaries, currency depreciation has caused a decline in the price of non-trade-able goods. This means that non-government employees also saw their salaries decrease. More than this, some workers are no longer paid their salaries consistently (Mbembe discusses this at length in On the Postcolony). Salaries are arranged officially but paid informally. In some cases, workers are encouraged to work for nothing during the first several months as a means to secure their position.

Haggling and bargaining for (supplemental) salaries is a byproduct of a combination of the increase in the price of commodity goods, a decrease in real salary and the intertwining of the formal economy with the informal.

The last point is an important factor in understanding the prevalence of such practices: Bartering and re-bartering are essential components of the Senegalese economy and cannot be clearly separated from the formal economy. Haggling for ‘extra’ funds for services rendered is practiced across diverse economic sectors. This was demonstrated upon my arrival in Dakar, when I was asked by the airport official to pay an unofficial tariff as I did not know the precise address of my stay in the city (after I discussed the matter with him and explained how tired my two-year old daughter was from the long flight, he agreed to let me pass without paying anything).

The Taxi Coin Toss

Lets now return to that episode with the taxi in Dakar that I began with. During the drive, we animately discussed the issue of ‘the extra dollar’, i.e. the extra 500 CFA that the driver had haggled and re-haggled for but which he was denied.

In the end, we agreed to pay the additional 500 CFA that night. When we gave the taxi driver the money, however, he surprised all of us by tossing the 500 CFA coin out the window in anger. He threw the coin in the direction of my friend, A, who had arranged the cost of the taxi at 2,000 CFA. We walked away in silence. Why did the taxi man throw the money out the window? I have a couple of hypotheses.

Importantly, given in the manner that it was, the money had become a sort of a gift; it had become a token of pity, if you will. It was no longer something that he had worked for.

Also, I agree with James Scott’s arguments that everyday acts of resistance – ‘foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson [and] sabotage – are reflections of a ‘prosaic but constant struggle’ over ‘autonomy’ (Scott). The man’s anger was one means through which to contend with (1) a system of disempowerment and (2) more immediately, a frustrating interaction with three white foreigners in his country.

The taxi driver’s act of refusing the money affirmed his dignity and autonomy and reminds us that human agency is not secondary to material exploitation. One of the reasons why this story is so compelling is because the man refused the 500 CFA.

It is important not to lose sight of the political and economic functions of the system of haggling in African countries and the context that enables the informal economy to thrive. My point is not that ‘extra money’ should be paid routinely but that we acknowledge our presence within larger hegemonic social and political-economic structures that shape and inform these everyday interactions in important ways.

Moreover, such interactions highlight the ongoing need for in-depth discussions and reflection about whiteness and white privilege. Despite the assertion of A and B that they are ‘locals’, their whiteness and American nationality insulate them from the lived realities of many Senegalese people. White privilege accords them the power to choose when to ‘be local’ (price of goods and services, relationships with locals) and when to ‘be foreign’ (better salary, easy travel, entry anywhere, exit anytime) and the peace of mind never to critically engage with the disparities between the two.

I am not arguing that Westerners act out of a sense of perpetual ‘white guilt’ and give away all of their personal material belongings or wealth to local people. The point of my blog is not to reduce Senegalese to victimhood. Instead, we must work to interact in ways that acknowledge human dignity and autonomy. If this means taking five extra minutes a day to answer strangers who question you in the marketplace or to explain why 2,000 CFA is the appropriate cost for a taxi ride (i.e. ‘not all foreigners are wealthy’, ‘I have lived in Dakar for three years’, etc.), so be it.

Amber Murrey is a Dphil student in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.



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  1. Bradley Smith
    May 21, 2012 at 12:13 am — Reply

    interesting exchange. I Like your point on foreigners living somewhere ‘choosing’ when they were foreign and when they were local. I think many foreigners in the United States could explain to you that when your foreign, you’re always a little foreign, no matter how local you’d like to be.

    Reminds me of the rickshaw drivers in India; If I asked for a price, we would get an inflated number, if a westernized local (Abijith Kashyap) would ask, we’d get a slightly lower number that Abi would then talk down to an agreeable fare. I would guess a working class locals receives the acceptable fare or very near to it the first time.

    I have not been to Africa besides Mubarrak-run egypt, but I have seen similar haggling & bartering in other developing nations. In those instances I think the root of the behavior in a population is born from the acceptability from the general public that “that is the way things are”. In my notion of corruption occurring, officials would only start asking for bribes or ‘extra’ on a service if they think other officials in their department were doing it; a “you have to do this to make in this place” kind of attitude.

    Thanks for the piece, good stuff!

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