A Bajan staple for 100 years
Barbados TODAY continues its series on the local Muslim community.
For over 100 years, East Indian salesmen have silently moved from door to door crediting household items to Barbadians. The only sound they make is the beep of a horn, signalling to their customers that they are outside to collect money owed them, or have new items for sale.
But there is much more to the story of these businessmen who are usually of the Muslim faith.
And veteran salesman Ashraf Kazi, who has been in the business since since 1979 after taking over from his father, and Anwar Nana, who joined 25 years ago, were there to tell it.
Do not refer to any of them as the “coolie man”, because that is a derogatory, says Kazi.
When the new type of business was introduced to society around 1910, instead of driving, salesmen had no choice but to walk from door to door. Then, there was just a few of them. Now, there are approximately 200 salesmen covering the length and breadth of Barbados.
Both men indicated that while times had changed, business had also been transformed.
Nana said he believed traditional salesmen had made a phenomenal contribution to the country’s landscape, having started offering the credit system to the poor who could not afford to purchase items at cash prices.
“People knew our surnames by car numbers. I would find people would come and tell me, ‘You are 1810 Nana. Your father helped me to go to school; your father sent my brothers and sisters to school’. So that is the contribution that we made,” Nana said.
The biggest advantage these salesmen offered was that they credited items without carrying out any background checks on their clients, as was mandatory by other businesses.
“And we don’t charge interest; so there is no interest. It is against our religion to charge interest. We give you a credit price and if you take a month to pay or ten years to pay, that price remains the same. We try to be reasonable and hope people pay us back in a reasonable time,” Nana stressed.
Kazi remarked that things had changed in the industry where salesmen had moved from primarily selling clothing and basic household items and necessities to adding major appliances, lumber, and even cars, to the availability list.
“But it depends on the relationship with your client; and it has to be someone that you have been dealing with over the years,” Nana noted.
The meaning of persistence is the existence of something continued or prolonged. To these salesmen, over the years, this word has become their best friend, and a strategic measure used whenever dealing with a difficult customer.
“For us, it is strictly persistence and relying on the honesty of the public to pay,” Nana said.
Meanwhile, Kazi, who said he only took new customers by reference suggested: “We don’t really take any harsh measurements. If it is a lot of money somebody owes us, then we might have to get a bailiff or something. But we hardly do that; we try to reason with the people to try to get at least some of the money.
“We are not tough like stores in town where you have to pay in a short term. I have been in this business for 40 years and I have never quarrelled with a customer or carried on in a rough way.”
Nana, the younger of the two men, said a growing trend was emerging in the industry. More people wanted loans.
“Because of what is happening economically, we find a lot of customers asking us for loans. Customers whose light bill needs to be paid would call and say, ‘Could I have something until the end of the month?’; and that is a lot more prevalent now for the last five or six years,” he told Barbados TODAY.
Crime is also another issue that these salesmen have fought in recent years, because they faced the reality that “salesmen are ready targets” for being robbed or killed –– as had happened in 2010.
To deal with this growing matter which has caused concern among those involved in the business, Kazi said they stayed away from high-risk areas at particular times and tried to go off the road early.
“We go around, and any new faces we spot in a village we have to be wary of who they are. We have problems with guys looking to stick you up because they think that the Indian salesman has money because he is out from morning doing business –– even though we take our safety measures and do things to alleviate these threats . . . ,” explained Nana.
Muslims in general are thrifty people, and if they collect a sum of money, they will save some for a rainy day.
Their disciplined method of saving has caused them to step up economically in society and to live a better life.
As he commented on the topic of salesmen’s saving abilities, Kazi said: “We save and we try to get a better house and we try to educate our children to give them a better opportunity.”
He continued: “Some salesmen were not educated. For me, I had a choice because I went to Presentation College. I also went to Barbados Community College. My brother is an ophthalmologist.
“I had a whole lot of opportunities, but I took over my father’s business. My father was getting old and my brother went to university and I took over his role. We have now evolved and our children are going to university, taking good jobs. Some have become doctors and engineers.”
Both Kazi and Nana believe that door-to-door salesmen would be seen around for many more years because of the nature and benefits of this trade.
“It’s a self-employed business where what you put in you will get back. If you work 40 hours at a shop, you will not earn [what] you work 40 hours here for. You will earn more in this business. And you are not depending on anyone. You can go to work when you like. If you don’t feel like going to work, you don’t have to go to work.
“If you want to make money, you have to work. It will take a good time before it will drift away. It will take another 40 or 50 years before its drifts away,” Kazi said.
According to Nana, it was not all business being exchanged between him and his customers. Most of them have become good friends he has cherished, and they can call on him at any time if they need to.
“I would help them because it is a relationship. In this business you get to meet people. People would come and tell us their problems; so you go out and sort out marital problems, and girlfriend and boyfriend problems. My customers and I go and sit in their house. And I have cases where customers would say, ‘The television is there; you can watch whatever you want to watch’. They have problems, we have problems; and we will talk to one another,” Nana explained.