From the street to the point of sale, shopping a foreign land can be incredibaly fun or frustrating.
The shopping experience in Tanzania is starkly different from that in the US. Contrary to the American commercial industry, laws protecting the consumer and merchant are few and far between. From advertising, cleanliness standards, setting prices and returns, everything seems to be ‘business at your own risk’.
Take a stroll down the road and any American is sure to spot a familiar face. Not that of a live person but rather American celebrities’ images used to promote small businesses. At nearly every hair salon – male or female – images of famous musicians are placed on the signs and/or in the windows. In America, such imagery would signify official endorsement, but here it is 100% unofficial endorsement. Among the most frequently used are Alicia Keys, Rihanna, and Beyonce at the women’s salons and Rick Ross, Usher, Will Smith and P. Diddy at the men’s.
Laws regarding food handling & sales are another area of concern. In America, we hold food merchants to a high level of accountability when it comes to cooked food. Health codes are put in places to ensure food has been handled with a properly and then stored at appropriate temperatures. If a food vendor fails to comply with such requirement, they could be fined or shut down. But in Tanzania, anyone with a piece of food can become a food vendor. Along any roadside, women can be found roasting corn over tiny improvised fire-pits. Every bus stop hosts numerous vendors toting baskets of boiled eggs, peanuts, samosas, etc.. While these vendors do provide a quick and affordable snack for hungry patrons, they don’t come without risk. When buying from such vendors, there is no way of knowing where and how the food was cook, nor how old it is. Furthermore, since the food is not covered after being cooked, there is no way of knowing what contaminants it has been exposed to. Even at stationary food venues where food is stored in glass cases, it is almost guaranteed that there will be several flies inside with the food. In the event that a person becomes ill after eating such an item, there is no way of returning to the vendor to make a complaint, much less sue them for medical expenses.
Lastly, and most frustrating for me, is pricing. Only in the very few, modern shopping centers are priced set and listed. Everywhere else, bartering is done to settle on the price of everything, from clothes and food, to car washing and pedicure services. I hate this! As if the act of bartering were not time consuming enough, throw in the fact that I’m white and that significantly increases the challenge. Whatever the typical price for an item/service is for a local person, that price increase 50-100% for wazungu (white people). Rest assured, that even when the merchant insists they are giving you the ‘rafiki price’ (friend price) not the ‘mzungu price’ (white person) they are over charging you. I’ve found 2 options of getting around this: 1) send a local person to buy the item for you, or 2) speak to them with fierce Swahili saying that you have lived in the country for years and know what it should cost therefore they can choose to sale the item at an appropriate price or get no sale at all. Even with these tactics, shopping is still a headache for me. My style of shopping generally begins with me deciding what price I am willing to spend and then finding something within that budget. Here however, this approach will not work. Instead, you find and item that you like and then begin negotiating on a price.
All things considered, shopping in a foreign country can be thrilling. Aside from the cheap Chinese imports that seem to be in every country, items found at the market speak to the culture of the place. Whether it be buying a hard-boiled egg from a 10 year old boy on the corner, or paying to have henna painted on your arm, every commercial act is linked to the socioeconomic status of a diverse culture. The greatest obstacle is learning enough of the local language to ask the relevant questions. And as always, buyers beware.