Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up
and living in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, T
exas, and Africa..... Ain't done growing up 'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan






A story of Indian merchants and their stealth


On the southeast quarter of Lake Victory in East Africa is a large island named Ukerewe Island. In the ancient past it was a kingdom with a king instead of a chief like other local tribes. The king of Ukerewe Island did not submit easily to the intrusion of the White man. In 1955 life was very colonial. England was in charge in Tanganyika (now called Tanzania), and the king had long ago been replaced with a chief.

Life was good on Ukerewe which is the first place my family lived when we went to Africa. I was 11 years old. The island was rich in soil, forested lightly, and noted for its huge round boulders that stuck up above the ground like icebergs in the sea. The capital city of Ukerewe Island was a small city called Nansio.

Nansio was a port also, and every day a small ship made the trip to and from Mwanza, a large city on the south shore of Lake Victoria. On market day the town was more like a carnival with venders all around the town. Push carts, aging Austin taxis, donkey carts, and over loaded trucks crept about trying not to run over one another.

The air was heavy with subtle and aggressive odors. There was the smell of fish drying in the sun where Luo and Wakerewe fishermen were getting them ready for market by drying them on the hot rocks near the lake shore. There was the morning cooking smells coming over the wall of Indian wives as they fried the onions in curry for the evening meal much later. This smell would mature through the day as ingredients were added which would drive you mad with hunger if you were not so lucky as to pull up to a curry pot soon.

Then, there were the chickens and livestock wandering around, the aging diesel trucks grinding by, the sweating longshoremen off loaded barges of cement and lumber. Fresh mangos, bananas, and oranges were stacked in neat little piles for sale. All these smells combined to make an undefined but seductive aroma which draws people to the center of the town square.



Around the town square were a line of dukas, Swahili for shops. These were owned by Indian merchants, and the shops were small compared to Western stores. But the Indian merchant had a talent for packing a shop full to the ceiling, hanging pots and hardware on wires from the ceiling over you head as you squeezed through the aisles of rice and Ever Ready batteries. There were no shopping carts of trolleys. The shopper brought a kikapu, Swahili for a shopping bag woven from lake grass.

Before placing an item in your bag, you turned to the Indian shop owner and asked, "Bei ganni hi?" What is the price of this? "The answer, "Only 35 shillings." The first price given was the shop owner's starting price. You would chide him in a friendly way, "Come now, Walji, I am your best customer. You can do better than that." Walji would nod his head to the side, smile, and say, "Never mind, only for you 20 shillings." Once you had the items you wanted to buy, you went to the counter and the tally was made. Walji would do this in his head in a flash, and he would not cheat you once you had settled on the prices. Finally, as some fragile items were repacked for you by the African worker of Walji, you ask, " Na bakshish kidogo.....?" A bakshish is an added gift the shop keeper selects, not you, and drops it into your kikapu. It may be some candy for your kid or some imported Scottish Short Bread biscuits.

You pay up, deposit your kikapu in your car, pick up another shopping bag, and off to HP Patel's shop to buy yardage goods and arrange for a pair of shoes to be made. The same process takes place over and over, and by the end of the morning you have visited four or five Indian shops and have all your supplies for another three months on your mission station.

Now, Walji was a zealous merchant as was HP Patel. My Dad and Mom bought mostly from Walji because his prices were the best, and his shop was huge for Africa with a big inventory. Patel got some of our business after Walji, and Patel had the only bottled soda in town which he bottled himself-- such flavors as ice cream soda and watermelon. We would buy any flavor because they all tasted the same, like vanilla, but they were cold on a hot day.

Both Walji and HP Patel imported gasoline in 55 gallon drums from the mainland to sell to people from outlying areas who took it back to government outposts and mission stations. My Dad would exchange an empty for a full drum every time we went to town. Walji's price was always a bit below HP Patel.

One day we drove the 40 miles, crossed the ferry at the Rugezi landing, and on to Nansio to shop. Dad went around the Walji's shop to buy supplies first. Whatever Walji did not have we bought from HP Patel, Virji, or Damji Mamji. Well, on this occasion, the price of a drum of gasoline was almost double the usual price. My Dad was horrified. When my Dad asked why, Walj made a very circuitous explanation which my Dad finally realized meant the ship from the mainland had not made the trip yesterday, and Walji had the only gasoline in town.

My Dad knew the Indian ethic very well, but my Dad had begun to feel that Walji actually had a feeling of being a friend as well as a merchant to my Dad. My Dad was pretty disgusted with Walji. As Walji sat on the counter of his shop crunching numbers and doing book keeping in his head, yelling at his kids and wife to work harder, and chewing beetle nut until his teeth turned magenta red, my Dad protested at Walji's gouging on the price. Walji wagged his head to the side in classic Indian fashion, and the most gentle and friendly voice said, "Mr. Wannatan, don't let our friendship interfere with business, thank you please."

My Dad bought the gasoline, loaded it, and chalked the event up to experience.

Several months later we were in town again. My Dad needed to have a couple hundred school boys' jumpers made for school uniforms. Dad at once started shopping at HP Patel's store. HP may well have watched as Dad walked past Walji's shop and started his shopping day with Patel. When Dad asked HP Patel what the price for 200 jumpers would be, HP gave Dad an unbelievably low price. Dad took it without haggling at all. As it turned out, Patel had figured things out real fast, and the price quote was his effort to win Dad to start his shopping in his store. It worked. Patel got the contract, and Dad did some shopping and went on to Walji's store.

By this time, the rumor mill, probably Indian wives and kids chattering, had gotten the gossip to Walji that he missed a chance at a big deal that day. When Dad finally arrived to buy some things at Walji's stores, he was in a miserable state of mind and asked my Dad, "My old friend, why have you not come first to me for a price?" My Dad, mimicking Walji's sweetness, said, "Walji, don't let our friendship interfere with business."

Thus, on later visits, Dad did sometimes start at Walji's shop, but never again did Walji gouge my Dad on price. He craved to beat out HP Patel for our business, and we probably got better prices than some of Walji's own relatives in town.