Expat Trouble: Two Dutchmen and a Mali Sheep

by Miss Footloose
Sahara Desert

There’s a Dutchman somewhere here.

When you travel the world and live in alien places as an expat one thing becomes clear very soon: You cannot get away from Dutch people. Not that you’d want to necessarily; they can be loads of fun once in a while. It’s just that they are everywhere. Even in the Sahara Desert. Even in Mali.

So what’s with these people?

As a Dutch expat, I have found, to my chagrin, that my people do not universally enjoy a stellar reputation. The Dutch are judged to be opinionated, blunt, bullheaded and sometimes (it hurts to say it) cocky. (But they are NOT unfriendly, no matter what you say!)

Our American friend Max tells a story of what he considers a typical Dutch incident which occurred while he lived and labored in Mali, West Africa. At the time Max was working on a water project with one other American aid worker and two Dutch ones. The story goes like this:

(This tale is a repost, but I love telling this story to friends and maybe you haven’t read it before, so I hope you enjoy.)

The four of them one early evening were trekking through the desert on camels in search of nutritional fortification after a day of toil.

Think Hollywood!

Can you see them? Four good-looking, rugged guys with deep tans and meters of cloth wrapped around their heads to protect against sand and sun — dusty, dirty and starving. Straight out of the movies I tell you.

Sahara Camels

Four sexy guys on camels. How romantic is this?


They finally arrived in a small desert village — sand, mud huts, donkeys, camels, you get the picture — and went foraging for beer and food.

There are no restaurants of a recognizable sort in remote Malian hamlets, the kind that have stocked refrigerators and freezers and pantries, the kind that can produce a plate of artificially flavored, colored and chemically preserved victuals within minutes.

Not to worry!

However, there are eating places where you tell them what you want and someone will go off into the wild yonder and catch it, slaughter it, cook it over an open fire and serve it to you. In the mean time you enjoy the local brew and fight off the flies.

The exhausted foursome located such an enterprise, the only one in the village, and parked themselves on the rickety wooden benches. They discussed the dinner possibilities. Lobster not being one of them, they decided on sharing a sheep, a selection heartily recommended by the owner of the eating establishment.

Photo by Melodie Nelson CC BY-NC-SA

Sharing a sheep? Surely you jest!

No joke. A whole sheep might seem to you like a lot of food for four guys, even four hungry Development Cowboys, but that’s only because you’ve never seen a Malian sheep.

So, this decided, the next step was to negotiate a price for the unfortunate animal not yet caught and butchered.

Not surprisingly, the price mentioned by the proprietor was exorbitant by local standards. The Malian knew an opportunity when he saw one: These blokes were foreigners, which meant they had lots of money; so why not relieve them of some of it?

The foreigners were on to him

Having resided in the area for some time, the four Development Cowboys were quite aware of the local standard. The two Dutchmen were outraged. They did not take well to being cheated. That’s just how the Dutch are. It’s not that we’re cheap, mind you, it’s just that we don’t like to be swindled. It’s a matter of Dutch pride.

The Americans were not burdened by Dutch pride

They were hungry. They figured that under the circumstances being cheated was a given, a fact of life. They didn’t particularly care what they paid as long as they were going to see some food before their blood sugar sank to coma levels. They made some appropriate and expected noises about the price being too high and the Malian generously offered a slightly lower one.

The Dutchmen were incensed. The Americans were starving. The Malian was stubborn. He had a captive audience and he knew it. Smart man. The Americans tried valiantly to make the Dutchmen see the error of their ways, which was a futile endeavor. That’s another thing about Dutch people: We don’t like to be told we are wrong, and certainly not by Americans.

The Dutchmen were not about to give in

They professed to rather starve than be defrauded. They wanted to pay what the locals paid. Period. The Americans were losing their patience and ordered more beer. The Malian scratched himself and stuck to his price. The haggling went on for another hour, while the four kept downing the millet beer and getting progressively more wiped out and hungry.

African Millet Beer

Sahara champagne: Millet Beer – Photo courtesy Michael Stein

Finally, surprisingly, the Malian caved in. Okay, all right, they could have the sheep for a price low enough not to wound the pride of the Dutchmen.

You must understand, dear reader, that the Dutch have a long history of sailing the high seas and buying, selling and negotiating prices in the world market: Sugar, spices, slaves, you name it. It’s in our genes; we’re good at it. Even in the desert haggling over a sheep with a native.

So, the deal was made

The Americans were relieved. The Dutchmen were smug. The Malian went off in search of a sheep.

Sahelian Sheep

Really? I had other plans tonight.

Hours later, the night in its final throes, our starving Development Cowboys were finally presented with their meal of roasted mutton.

Oh, no!

It must have been quite a sheep: The roasted beast had only two legs, and some other choice parts were missing.

The Malian looked smug. The Americans attacked the food. The Nederlanders followed suit. That’s another thing about the Dutch: Sometimes we lose, but we’ll never admit it.

* * *
Now, I hope I have not offended my fellow Dutchies (niet de bedoeling). Here’s a question for the rest of you: What are some national characteristics or idiosyncrasies you have discovered about your own people, or the ones you now live with? All in good fun, of course. Humor appreciated!

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A Dutch expat once told me, “You can always tell a Dutchman but you can’t tell him much!” 😉 I’ve yet to verify his statement but I got a fun kick out of your piece.


Very good-draws you in with a nice twist & reflection at the end. T’is an Art!! Hugs C x

Having just returned from Paris, I think the younger generations are less arrogant, and more willing to accept other nationalities. I thought it was the Danes who traveled all over the world.

Reading back the comments and my own story makes me think that maybe the french are worse than the dutch?

I am not offended. Amused, I am. Luckily I do not suffer from this dutch pride. I am very bad at this haggling, especially when it is about so little money. I remember an argument we had on the subject with a french lady that owned a hostel in Madagascar. She said we tourists were spoilong the market for pousse-pousses (which are a type of cart, pulled by men) which are use to transport people, locals and tourists alike. I off course was fully aware that as a tourist I was paying the premium. But to pay a little scarcely… Read more »

In South Africa we owe quite a lot to the Dutch with Jan van Riebeeck having arrived here with his countrymen in 1652, and the rest, as they say, is history …..

Here’s the link to South Africans – 360 years later and the Dutch influence is still around in our “Afrikaans” words freely used in SA English.

Ha ha ha! That’s so funny!

Since I sound English I tend to stay away from Dutch people when in foreign parts. Unless they hate the Brits even more than the Dutch that is!


I think my husband and I must be Dutch! (I am actually half-Dutch, on my father’s side. Both his parents came from there) But we HATE being cheated, while many other Americans had the “we’re so much richer than they are so we’ll pay anything” attitude, which made us crazy cuz that made it HARDER for us to get decent prices. Americans…ah, we have so many stereotypes about us, most of them negative. We’re loud and we dress funny and we think we’re in charge of the world and we think everyone should speak our language, and on top of… Read more »

Haha I’m married to the one Dutchman who has no problem parting with his money for local people even when we’re being cheated. He has NO Dutch pride 🙂

Bonjour. I have not stopped by for a while and am glad I did today. Smiled when I read people’s description of the Dutch– have heard it said myself about the French many times 🙂 [“opinionated, blunt, bullheaded and sometimes (it hurts to say it) cocky.”] Ha! ha! ha! Great story to boot. I have known Dutch people and always got along famously with them. One thing I always admired was how gifted they were at speaking foreign languages… Bon weekend! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)


Humorous story about the Dutch. I will keep it in mind when negotiating with my Dutch colleagues at the international school. Surprisingly the French sound very similar to the Dutch when it comes to stubborn pride. My French husband is never wrong, nor are any of our other French friends, but what do I know, I am a mere gullible, naive, ever-ready-to-please American. ha ha

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