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Why ‘what is the price?’ is a stupid question

For Christmas Elliot’s grandparents sent us some money to have a blackboard made for him on the side of our house. We needed a fundi to do it and found out that a catechist (like a student minister) of a local congregation does this kind of work. Very few catechists are paid at all, so they often have a trade to support themselves. Our friend John hooked us up with him.

The fundi came for an initial meeting to discuss what we wanted done and after that I asked him what the price would be. His response, directed to John was, ‘I need some context.’ I wondered what on earth he was talking about. What context did he need? After all, we’d given him something to eat and drink and sat and talked about our lives and families.


I asked John about it later, and he said that pastors are often given labor for free, so clarifying that we didn’t expect that was an important piece of context. But there had been more to John’s answer to the fundi than just that. He’d told him about our work here in Tanzania, and about the different connections we have and who we know. I wondered, is John trying to talk us up so this guy doesn’t inflate his price?

I asked John whether we could trust the fundi, as his request for context before giving the price didn’t inspire me with confidence. John wasn’t sure how honest the fundi was, simply because he doesn’t know him that well. Consequently, part of his context talk had been a bit of a talk about making sure he did a good and honest job for us. But John didn’t think that changing or inflating the price was a sign of dishonesty. Here’s what he explained to me:

  • Everything is relational, and that includes working for someone. It’s like ‘mates rates‘ but on steroids.
  • Prices are negotiable. We’d heard about bargaining but haven’t had much opportunity – at the market, prices are fixed as Dodoma becomes a more global town. But bargaining isn’t necessarily adversarial; think of it as coming to an agreement.
  • Prices are based on what you can contribute. You ask for context because someone who’s working for an NGO has more money than a missionary, who has more money than your average Tanzanian. Each person has a different capacity to pay, and that’s taken into account.

Asking ‘what is the price?’ is a stupid question because it assumes that the only relevant factor is the value of the product. But how do you assess the value of the product extracted from its context? Everything is relational, including money and services.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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