A different way of bargaining is traditional in Somali camel markets. In 1906 Lorenz Hagenback received a request from the German government to supply its colonial army in South-West Africa (today’s Namibia) with 1,000 camels. Hagenback turned to the best in that industry – the Somalis. However, Hagenback admitted later that he had not mastered the secret finger-language used in that trade. More than a century later, clandestine, tactile negotiating can still be seen in Somalia’s capital, Hargeisa.

     In the market, there is, initially, a lot of noise, as the seller loudly extols the virtues of his product, However, when the negotiations begin in earnest, silence falls, and the seller and the buyer each slip an arm under a shawl. The buyer makes an offer by grabbing the seller’s fingers. The number of fingers gripped, and knuckles pressed determines the bid. If the bid is too low, the seller redirects his grips and pressures until the deal is agreed.

     The idea of this method is that the details of the negotiations, and the deal itself, cannot be observed by other people, especially other potential buyers who might be standing close, hoping to use the information in their negotiations. The method has worked well for centuries, and the Somalis are second to none in its execution. A different way of bargaining!

     However, this traditional bargaining method is now under threat from two distinct sources: cell phones, and women.

     Cell phones enable customers to check with outside sources what the current market value of the camels being sold might be, thus preventing the seller from inflating the price too much. Needless to say, traditional sellers are trying to get cell phones banned from the camel markets. It’s a futile attempt to keep their edge, and their often exorbitant prices.

     The second threat is more difficult to thwart, because it contradicts the local Imams interpretation of Islamic law. That law forbids men and women, who are not related, from touching each other, particularly under a cover. Since women currently make up almost half of the camel market’s staff, and that poses a severe problem.

     The result of that impasse is that negotiations between men and women over the sale of camels, have to be conducted verbally. That is boosting competition, and price transparency.

     The traditional sellers of camels are furious, and the buyers ecstatic. Perhaps unfortunately, this means a cultural skill that has been honed over many centuries, may well slowly disappear. Groping someone else’s hand under a blanket may not seem to be a skill that should be revered, but loosing cultural integrity to the god of progress, doesn’t seem like a good deal much like a good deal either.

     Perhaps personal robots could be taught the necessary skills, which would eliminate the need for touching, but where’s the fun in that?

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