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!