NKATHA BAY, Malawi. We are now in Nkatha Bay. It has been too long already but this place is so incredible! We have been traveling in pretty mediocre (not to say very bad at some point…) conditions for so long that now that we finally got to a place where it feels so good to be, we are postponing our departure…But the lesson of today was worth the stay!
Today we went to town for lunch. We usually avoid eating at the places we stay, and rather walk to some local place where we can get pretty “ok” food for very cheap (today’s bill: 1.5$ for rice, a piece of fish and some vegetables). On the way back, we stopped at that curio shop, the lady there was making absolutely incredible jewelleries, it was just crazy how talented she was!! We wanted to get something, but everything was pretty expensive (for African standards). The bracelet would be around 4$, le necklaces around 8$. We didn’t want to spend that money (especially because we make a point to save every single cent and eat very basic food for very cheap, we didn’t feel like spending 4 times our daily budget on a damn bracelet – even though it was so amazingly well made). So we asked her if she was also doing trading and luckily she said yes. So we ran back to our place and looked in our luggage everything we could be willing to trade against those beautiful art pieces. I was thinking that I could get quite a few of them and sell them on Réunion for 5$ to 10$ and raise a bit of money for the project. I had this beautiful NafNaf silk scarf that I thought I was willing to give away for the cause. I was already thinking how many bracelets and necklaces I could get for my silk scarf. I also had a nice dress with a very cool design and super comfortable and light –perfect for African weather, that I was sure she would love and she could give me even more stuff for that one. Toto had a brand new shirt that he had got in the states and never got the chance to wear yet as well as a linen short that we got in Vietnam and that was also worth quite a lot. On top of that we added some little stuff, like a little perfume that I have and that had never been opened, a brand new l’Occitanes cream for dry hands, some socks (the ones I got in the plane), thinking that we could get a pair of earing for each, at least.
So we got there, super excited, feeling that we were carrying with us a bag full of fairly expensive items that we would trade against a load of those handmade jewelleries. We took some times to select all the ones that we wanted to get. I didn’t want to select too few because I thought that I didn’t want to lose in the trade, that we were giving pretty worthy stuff so we wanted something of the same value. Moreover, we thought that this lady was selling her craft between 3 and 10$ but that they probably cost her only a couple of cents to make, so we truly thought that we could get a fair amount out of the deal. She started calculating how many pieces we had selected, how much were each, and made the total: 70,000 kwacha ($150). Then she asked what we had for her. I showed her my silk scarf, she looked at it with a very limited interest. Toto advised her to touch it “it’s silk!”, she didn’t bother doing it. We showed her the brand new shirt and got the same placid and indifferent reaction. My dress had a very little effect as well and the linen short didn’t seem to raise more interest. When we had finally put all our belongings on the table, she looked at us and said “that’s it?”. We didn’t know what to say anymore, we had just put in front of her at least a hundred dollars’ worth of clothes and she was looking at it as if it was a bag of popcorn. She grabbed Toto’s brand new shirt and said “I bring that to the market, I sell 200 kwacha”. I had to pick my jaw up the floor. This is $0.50. We were both shocked, we tried to explain her that this was brand new, that this was not “second hand”, not bad quality, that this was an EXPENSIVE shirt and that she couldn’t dare selling that for half a dollar! She insisted. “On the market, shirts are 500 kwacha”. Then she grabbed the linen short and said “this, on the market, 500 kwacha”. Schatz and I reacted with a “What?!!?!” and our eyes maybe doubling size. I tried to explain her “No no no!! This is an expensive dress and look, it’s very nice, and very comfortable!” Nothing to do. She explained that on the market, this type of item is one dollar. She didn’t dare giving her price estimation for my silk scarf, I’m not sure if I wanted to know anyway. Giving away the shirt and the dress wouldn’t even be enough to get the cheapest bracelet. We were desperate, and so disappointed. I had already pictured myself walking out with a bag full of beautiful jewelleries that are so ridiculously cheap to make, that I could sell them on the market back home or at my mum’s office and I could get some money for the school!! And now our entire bag couldn’t even get us a neckless. We gave up. We didn’t want to give away our valuable stuff for those little pieces of iron thread and beads that are worth a couple of cents. We gave her Toto’s shirt and one of my tank top against a bracelet that Toto liked a lot and we walked away, devastated.
This made me think a lot about the notion of “perceived value”. Back home, there is a big difference between cheap bad quality clothes that you would find in those Chinese stores, the medium class kind of clothes, that can be around 20$ to 100$, and those very expensive fashion piece where you can pay quite a few thousand for wearing an item for this specific brand. Here, a dress is a dress, no matter if it’s a Chinese dress of a Gucci dress, the price is one dollar. For a shirt, it’s half a dollar. Same for a short. No matter the brand, the design, the details, the material, the quality, it’s a short and it’s worth a short. My silk scarf has no more value than any meter square piece of cloth, which is probably a few cents. They get most of their clothes from huge containers that arrive from Europe, the States or Australia and sell them on the market. There is no fashion, no trend; just the use gives it a value. I think there is a lot to learn from it. There is no judgment on outfit here. What you wear isn’t a mirror of how much you earn or how successful you are in life. Back home, we purchase for fashion, not for necessity. Style triumphs over utility, aesthetics over function. Our consumption society has pushed us to give value to things according to criteria that are not tangible anymore. I probably won’t look at the “value” of my belongings the same way. This event brought us one step away from materialism.