In America, the barter economy has sadly gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Except in small, rural towns or farming communities — on his farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley, my dad has been known to trade fish for fruit, car repairs, and old musical instruments — the only way that you can get something is to fork over your hard-earned cash. However, here in my village in rural Zambia I’ve found that various kinds of currency other than kwacha will pay for certain work or services, especially among the more vertically challenged demographic:
Old plastic bags and empty bottles
Every morning, a trio of little boys arrives at my house announcing that they want to sweep my front yard. In insistent, high-pitched voices, they chirp “Ndefwaya ukupyanga” (I want to sweep) or “Leteni ceswa” (Bring me the brush) like fledgling birds until I come out to
feed them worms let them use my brush. After they finish sweeping, I give them either an old plastic bag or an empty plastic bottle. The payment is scrutinized closely; if the boys see any holes, they impudently toss the trash back through my door and demand more. But if it passes inspection, they chortle with glee, sure that they’ve pulled a fast one over me, and scamper off to make kites, soccer balls, and toy cars.
Emily and Chabala, the two teenaged girls who live next door, will weed my front yard with well-worn ulukasus (hoes) in exchange for a few tablespoons of cooking oil. As they work, the girls also direct a relentless stream of sass toward me for free. How generous of them.
Chabala, who is also my main supplier of fresh produce, sometimes trades a bunch of leafy greens for a cup full of laundry washing detergent in lieu of 50 ngwee, the typical going rate for umusalu. After I bring out what I think is a pretty generous amount of powdered soap (and worth well more than the eight cents the vegetables cost), Chabala protests that it’s not enough (wachepa) and cajoles me into giving her more.
Some of the neighborhood boys fetch me water in exchange for taking a picture of them once they come back and then showing them the picture on the camera playback screen. This also earns me a free lemon or five if I’m out at Sebastian’s ponds and offer to photograph Modrick, one of his sons, deftly prodding the tart fruits down with a long pole. Taking pictures is a slippery slope though because as soon as the camera comes out, kids materialize out of nowhere and choruses of “Tukopeniko! Tukopeniko!” (Take pictures of us!) fill the air.
When I channel my inner Tom Sawyer and start slashing the tall grass in front of my house with a look of extreme enjoyment, a boy will invariably come up to me telling me to give the slasher to him so that he can do it. If I refuse, sometimes the kid will even offer me a guava or mango in exchange for the privilege of cutting my grass. However, this also works if I simply head out to the front yard and start hacking away, so I’m pretty sure it just means they think I’m doing it wrong. Everybody’s a backseat grass-cutter.