In 1995 we crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a trading voyage, stopping at the Azores and Portugal en route to the Gambia River. We made the voyage to buy calabashes, the hardy and lovely natural containers that are one of the primordial symbols of Africa. On a previous voyage, we had brought some back to St. John and were surprised by how much our charter guests admired them when we passed them around filled with snacks.
African calabashes are somewhat different from the ones in the West Indies. Our calabashes grow on trees. Theirs grow on vines and get much bigger. The ones in Africa are golden hued and thicker walled, and therefore better "insulated" against boiling hot contents.
When we got to Banjul, the Gambian capital, we eagerly went to the market, where, although calabashes were for sale, they were not plentiful. It turned out there was a more or less steady demand for new kitchen bowls and people didn’t grow much more than they thought they could sell and use. There was no central warehouse of calabashes—dry, temperature controlled, inventory-computerized, and rat-free—where the merchandise was safely stored. Furthermore, it was early in the dry season and the calabashes wouldn’t be coming ripe for at least six weeks. It became clear that we would have to go up the river from village to village to buy what extras the people had.
Our first stop was Juffure, where "Roots" had been filmed. People here understood tourism and when they heard what we wanted, a handful of young men started shouting, "I get you the best calabash, best price!" and soon small boys had brought samples. I picked one that looked good, unmarred by insects or water stains, and asked him how much.
"Fifty," he said. Firm.
"Dalasis?" I said, just to confirm. The exchange rate was 7 to 1; that many dalasis would be about seven dollars, which was three times the going rate.
"No, dollars!" I tried bargaining with the men, but they presented a united front. We didn’t buy anything at that rate, and left the village vowing to avoid tourist traps.
That was not hard to do. Once off the seacoast, away from beaches and hotels, the country was blessedly free of development. We still had trouble with the prices, though. A couple of days later, and a good many miles up the river, we tried again. Although the people were friendly, they, too asked for an absurd price. They came down fairly readily, but there was no bottom line, no firm grounding. Everybody was going for whatever the market would bear. We were offering top dollar with maybe 20% white man’s tax on top of that. Still it was confusing and a lengthy process, running the gamut of offer and counter-offer for every calabash.
Back on the boat that evening I had an idea. I took a half inch dowel, marked it off by segments, and assigned what price we’d pay if the maximum width of the bowl fell within any two given lines. If the bowl fell on a line, we’d give it the benefit of the doubt. It proved to be a great success.
And so we started up our river-trader mode in earnest. We would anchor and take our dinghy to a landing, perhaps only a tree root. It never took long for a small boy, the eyes and ears of an African village, to appear and run off to find someone with a horse-drawn cart. We’d trek into the village, usually located half a mile from the river to avoid flooding, with our empty sailbags and expectant looks on our faces.
Soon we were in the center of a small, curious crowd that was trying to comprehend why we were coming from America—where plastic comes from—to pay good money for the old fashioned, organic calabashes, which came only in shades of tan and would suffer water damage if you neglected to keep them dry.
Hesitant, they brought out some bowls. We picked out the ones we liked, remarking on the color, thickness, the shape. After awhile, some were selling us family heirlooms, beautiful, old, big with intricate stitching where there was a crack, and the outer shell rich with patina from a decade or two of palm oil polish. These we liked the best.
Much more remains to be said about this business venture. But the important thing is that we did manage to acquire a full cargo after much time, travel, and talk. We crossed the Atlantic, becoming very familiar with the smell of fresh calabash. When we arrived in St. John, USVI, Cid Hamling, who hates to be called St. Cid, declared that we should have a night dedicated to selling African products imported by sailboat. She got her publicity machine cranked up with flyers, signs, and announcements—and coconut telegraph word of mouth—
and within 72 hours of reaching home, all our calabashes, cloth, and musical instruments were up for sale at Skinny Legs.
It was the height of tourist season and the island was flooded with people. The response was overwhelming: we sold hundreds of calabashes, almost our entire store. It looked as though we might actually break even. There was an awkward moment at the beginning of the evening. We’d been unpacking and preparing and we didn’t have enough time to write prices on the bowls. The first buyers watched as we assigned prices by three different criteria—size, thickness, and color—and general all-around appeal. It looked arbitrary. It was arbitrary.
One interested onlooker, an MIT professor on vacation, asked, “How about I give you $20 each instead of $30? These have a blemish, should go for less." Suddenly everybody was questioning the price, trying to get a discount.
Luckily, I had found my measuring dowel in the bottom of a jute sack. I took it to the bathroom and with a scrap piece of sandpaper cleaned off the old prices. Then I wrote in the US dollar prices and we were good to go. The buyer would choose a calabash, ask the cost, and we would assiduously measure it with the dowel and triumphantly proclaim the price. The dowel worked like a charm, just as it had in backwaters of the Gambia.
I had thought that people in backwards West African villages, uneducated and unsophisticated, needed to have some sort of visual, graphic cue. But that night at Skinny Legs made it clear that, peasant or Phd, we are all one under the skin.