I hate while walls. Hate, hate, HATE them. I grew up in government housing and moved into it shortly after getting married and have lived probably ¾ of my life in one institutionalized white nightmare after the other if you include college. When I found out that I could paint my walls as long as I promised to return them to “winter white” right before I left, I jumped at the chance.
In Ghana, our walls were orange, green, blue, and sand. It felt homey, and it felt like we put our own stamp on a home that was chosen for us without any input and furnished with the oldest furniture on the planet. Hoping to get things painted before our household effect arrived, I started soliciting painter estimates a few weeks ago.
First thing was to find someone who had hired painters and who was happy with the job in all aspects – cost, timing, quality of work. After receiving two referrals, I had my helper, V, call them up. I had to – I don’t speak Hindi unless you count being able to say, “my dog is angry” and “Geeta is not a doctor”.
The first guy came by twice in one day. First time to “look”, second time to “measure”. We want three rooms painted. The first room is our entry hall. One of the walls is fully taken up by the front wall, one of the walls is a security gate, and the final wall is 7/8 elevator, so that’s effectively one wall that is approximately 8’x10’. ONE wall. The second room is our great room. Two walls are completely glass, so we’re really talking two walls. Not even, because one of them is 1/3 open archway. I’d estimate the square footage to be equivalent to a 10’x12’ room. The final room is the boys’ room. One wall is a storage unit. One wall is glass. There is a solid wall that’s about 12’x12’ and another that is about 12’x8’ and the area over the doorway to their bathroom.
Late last night, I got Painter A’s estimate: R47, 885. The U.S. dollar equivalent of about $800. I should mention that I had four full rooms (with trim) painted in the U.S. for a little over 2/3 of that price, and that included the paint and brushes and equipment. I’d already purchased paint and equipment and even shown Painter A the stack of materials, so his only “cost” was labor. I responded with a very short email, informing him that we would not be using his services as they were quite high and that I was well aware Indian labor costs were nowhere in the ballpark of where he was hitting.
V called Painter B. I made myself scarce and hid all my pictures. Didn’t matter, he came back R2000 HIGHER than Painter A.
At this point, I’m pissed. Seriously, do they think I’m sniffing glue?
I get that my apartment is in a trendy and chichi building. But I don’t own this $2 million dollar apartment and it’s clear I don’t – the name of the Indian national who is off working in Singapore for some investment bank and raking in cash hand over fist is clearly adhered to the right of the front door. And you know what? I didn’t ask to be born looking like this. That’s what V says it is – “Mam, you are paying for your skin.”
Nice. I’ve paid for my skin on more than one occasion. I get it. And often, it’s just fine. I know V pays R100/kg for apples but I pay R140. But we do make more money than she does, and I’m cool with it. If a local person pays R2000 for an item and I pay R2800, that really seems kind of fair to me in most cases.
But what drives me absolutely crazy is when the price is connected not to my perceived high salary but is driven by something that I’d almost call racism. There, I said it. The “R Word”. Yup, that. And I wish I could say that I don’t think that’s the reason, but I do.
I recall going to buy a crappy, 3-shelf bookcase in Accra and trying to negotiate with the seller. I’m talking something that looks like an IKEA Billy model shelf. They aren’t expensive. And they are imported, made of treated wood, and don’t sit on the side of the road for months at a time. The guy would not go below US$140. Which was a gouge in more ways than one.
So I walked around the shop area, biding my time, rethinking my approach, when a recent-model, fully loaded, Mercedes-Benz pulled up. Out stepped a “halfsie” Ghanaian woman – not full Ghanaian, she was too light for that. Probably half-European, educated abroad and come back to live locally. She had on tight Armani jeans, platform heels with red soles (do I need to tell you what that means?), and a blouse by a local designer that I happened to know cost upwards of $50. She had on more gold and diamonds than a Zales showroom. As I watched, she began barking orders at the guy I’d just been talking to, and took a seat on one of the wicker couches sitting in the middle of his display area.
“It is hot. You – go get me some Fan Ice!” she yelled at one of his assistants, and he ran off to do her bidding without asking for a single Pesewa to pay for it. The shop owner began to kowtow to this woman, and I practically goldfished at her shrewish behavior. She treated the guy like shit. No, like shit on the bottom of her shoes. And he lapped it up. She grabbed the ice cream from the assistant, ripped it open with her teeth and proceeded to point at several items nearby. She ordered what was essentially a bedroom set – a couple of shelves, a chest, a bedframe, a nightstand and a loveseat. And then she asked the man to name his price. Approximately $300. She yelled at him, said he was a cheat. She would give him $200, not a Pesewa more, and her boys would pick it up in two weeks. The shop owner agreed, bowed his head, and she shuffled off without a thank-you, without a backwards glance, and threw the FanIce wrapper on the ground. She then slid into the back seat of her Mercedes and her driver gunned the engine and sped off.
So I side up to the shop owner after a few minutes more of browsing and offer him $50, which is more than reasonable for the rickety shelf alone. “No, that will not even cover my costs, Madam. “ He then turns away and ignores me, effectively ending the encounter.
So why, exactly, does this happen? I go shopping in jeans. I only own silver jewelry and my wedding set was purchased by my husband during his senior year in college, so ya’ll know it’s just a chip. And why would an ultrawealthy, jet-setter who is clearly loaded and entitled warrant not only a reasonable price but also a painful discount? Am I being too nice? Do I need to throw in a word or two of the local language? Or am I just doomed to be “paying for my skin”?
Maybe there’s something else at work. The idea that the local got where they are by working hard and deserves to take everything from those who are still struggling? The strong take what they want, the weak suffer what they must? The Big Man Syndrome of Africa taken to its logical and twisted conclusion?
Either way, it makes me really, really angry. I’d love to give some local folks some work. I prefer to spend my money on the local economy, even though I have access to amazon.com and other shopping websites. Tax free, too. But it makes sense to shop locally, to use local folks, and I think it’s smart and the right thing to do on many levels; not just here, but anywhere I live. And I’m fine with paying a little more than the average local.
But I refuse to pay for my skin.