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If you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tanzania here, check out the new blog I've started on Wordpress as of November, 2017. It's called "Back to Tanzania" and you can read it here. All new adventures in Tanzania from an older, wiser, more experienced expat.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I did a lot of shopping to furnish my rented house. It's much more labor- and knowledge-intensive here than at home. We spent three half-days driving all over Arusha looking for housewares and appliances and another three half-days looking for furniture.

I looked in a couple of nice stores with imported manufactured furniture. The furniture was pretty, but none of it was real wood, just veneer over fiberboard. The upholstered pieces were mostly imitation leather and either very contemporary or very ornate. I think most of it is imported from China or India--but only guessing about that. So the pieces were okay, but at home I'd have thought they looked kind of cheap. But no....they were crazy expensive because they were imported and the Tanzanian government charges a big import tariff on manufactured goods. So a living room set of sofa, love seat, and easy chair in fake leather in a contemporary style was about $6,000! One store had outdoor furniture of that weatherproof synthetic wicker, just like at Home Depot, but about twice the price.

The other side of the furniture market is the thriving local workshops that make bulky wooden cupboards and tables and wild upholstered furniture. In a few parts of Arusha, these workshops are strung out all in a row along the road. Fundis (technicians) build wooden frames, then add the upholstery. The workshops are rough wooden buildings, open at the front, with mud floors. Most of the sofas are arrayed outside, on mud, facing the street. So you pull up, wander through the sofas, sit on a few (if you can squeeze in between them), and notice how much dust has settled into the fabric. The trick is to custom order so you can get one that hasn't been sitting outside. Also, for me, I didn't like most of the fabrics. They tend to be quite bright with big prints. They're popular here, but kind of jarring to my typically American eye. The wooden furniture is kind of roughly made, but really nice. To my typically American eye, it's appealing because of all the big pieces of solid wood and the handmade, slightly irregular look. This local market is much less expensive than the imported, manufactured market. So, just the opposite of home, if you want cheap furniture, custom order something made from solid wood!

I spent a couple of hours by myself walking from sofa to sofa along one road. Some vendors quoted reasonable prices, but some couldn't resist bumping the price up for the lone mzungu with no Tanzanian to advise her. By the time I reached the fourth or fifth display, the vendors all knew I was coming and were waiting at the boundary line to pounce on me as soon as I walked out of the competitor's area. One older gentleman who gave me quite the sales pitch in Swahili noticed that the young punk salesman next door was getting too eager and snapped at him, "Tulia!" (Calm down!). The younger salesman immediately took a couple of steps back and waited. Every sofa and chair, even within a set, had a slightly different size and shape, being all handmade quickly. Some were pretty comfortable and some weren't. But I couldn't find any upholstery fabric I liked at all. Lots of bright colors, which I usually love, but were somehow a few shades off. Lots of big flowers with kind of jacquard-ish fern leaves woven in. Most of the fabrics were fuzzy and too thin for upholstery.

Then I hit a couple of wood furniture workshops with tables and cupboards. At these workshops, you can see a few small finished pieces, maybe end tables or stools. They might have a large piece, like a dining table in progress and show you that. And they have a photo album of past projects. I found one shop where I really liked the dining tables and chairs, but the fundi, who was really friendly and let me practice my Swahili with him during the sales pitch, quoted me 900,000 T shillings for a table with 6 chairs. Other places had said 400 or 500! Of course, just like at home, my taste is expensive and I really liked this guy's designs better than anyone else's, even after a couple of weeks of looking all over town.

Once again, K2 to the rescue. He took me to a furniture workshop where he had worked, years ago, finishing wood pieces. Their sofas and chairs were comfortable, and they had a tiger stripe fabric that I actually like. Because, if you can believe this of tiger stripes, it was one of the more muted patterns I'd seen. K2 bartered them down to about half of what other places had quoted me, and I ordered, custom made without the mud, a sofa and two armchairs. I paid about $325 dollars for all three pieces, delivered three days after ordering. The fabric is thin, and the construction's cheap, but they're comfortable and I really like them. Don't know how long they'll last!

Yes, I know, there are no tigers in Africa!

Then, back to the fundi making the beautiful dining sets, but with K2 to do the bartering. He got the price down to 600,000 T shillings, or about $425, and I waited for about 3 weeks to get the set. When K2 went to pick it up, with the delivery driver I so admired in my last post about muddy roads around my house, the fundi tried to bump the price up. He complained that K2 had struck too good a bargain and was preventing him from taking enough profit from a mzungu. So now I'm reconsidering if I want to get a coffee table from him.

My beautiful dining set

I did have to put paper under two legs to keep it from rocking

My sitting room/ dining room. You can see the jacquard-ish ferns in the upholstery.

Now if I only had curtains and a TV! Maybe next month...

When it came to household items, such as kitchenware and sheets and towels, K2 was at a loss. He claims he doesn't need to know the stores or prices because he's a man. He called in Cecy, the stepdaughter of the fundi who has made many recent repairs to his Corolla.  She was fun to shop with, and knew all the best kitchen shops and if things were priced fairly. It seems as if the vendors just go ahead and quote a reasonable price if I have a Tanzanian friend with me. Also, she helped me pick out the right items for a Tanzanian kitchen, in addition to my American-style selections. A couple of things I wouldn't have known to buy were a small wooden rolling pin and circular wooden plate for rolling out chapati and a wooden pestle and mortar for grinding fresh ginger and other spices. 

Through all of this, I kept thinking that I could have accomplished it all in one day if only I had Wal-Mart and RC Willey! For those of you who hate Wal-Mart, I know I know! And the shopping routine here is much more interesting and did provide me with more social interaction and Swahili practice than a quick run to Wal-Mart.

I ended up hiring Cecy as a maid, or "housegirl," as they say in Tanzania. She comes to the house 3 days a week and does laundry (which is all by hand), cooking, and cleaning. She's wonderful and makes life so much easier! In the past, I've been a bit uncomfortable with having maids or housekeepers work for me, and sometimes it seems like it's not really worth the trouble. But with Cecy, it's easier and she's a huge help. Plus, K2 can eat here with me and have Tanzanian dishes that he likes. The housegirl job is apparently quite sought after here. Three other people, when they heard I was renting a house, asked me to hire their cousins. I'm not doing my own yard work either.  The two Maasai security guards asked me to hire them for that, so I did!


  1. Sounds like things are becoming more comfortable for you, with your living space and the help you are receiving! I like the furniture.

  2. Hi Barbara!
    great story, I always enjoy your posts. Been raining lots here in Utah. Not much hiking to be done due to the MUD. Lots of flooding everywhere, even the river walk in central Ogden is flooded out.
    miss your happy face but glad to read all about your new life. Do we hear wedding bells? (or is it horn honking)

  3. Joanie, Maybe it's just the vuvuzelas drifting over from the World Cup in South Africa...