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Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Shopping Arusha Style

Tanzanian Christians celebrate Christmas with their families, giving gifts, attending church, and preparing special meals. But it's all much more modest than the frenzy of shopping and gifts and eating we generate in America. Most parents buy a gift of one nice outfit for each of their children. A common gift from husband to wife is kitenge, or traditional cloth with wild prints. There's no one Christmas dinner that's traditional. Each family has their own favorite.

At home, I hate the crowds in the stores and try hard to avoid all shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But since things are quieter here, I figured it was time for some Christmas shopping-- Arusha style.

I didn't make it far before my first impulse buy...

This is Mama Chupa outside her shop, about 100 yards up the road from my gate. Usually she just sells soda, bottled water, beer, and a few household items. But she's branched out for a few days into a Christmas boutique. Chupa is Swahili for bottles. K2 nicknamed her Mama Chupa because she lets us take sodas without paying the bottle deposit. Her real name is Nancy.

The boutique display caught my eye and I swerved to the side of the road and started shopping.

I bought this great zebra purse. I've been missing my Wal-Mart vinyl zebra purse that I left at home. And even though I'm in Tanzania, no, it's not real zebra. It's a cheap-looking synthetic something. The black stripes are actually fuzzy, like flocked wallpaper. How could I resist?

I drove another few hundred yards on the shortcut track through the grassy field, where I spotted a machinga, or vendor walking around carrying his wares. The word is a Swahili version of the English phrase, "marching guy." This machinga was an albino. Albinism is much more common in Tanzania than in America, and it's also a social issue. In some remote parts of Tanzania there is a market for albino body parts to be used in witchcraft. No, it's not just a horrific story making the rounds. It's documented in occasional  news stories and the government here has hosted conferences to work on the problem. That kind of made me more inclined to buy stuff from this guy.

The day before, I drove past a display of sparkly Christmas decorations spread on the ground beside a main road. There were about a dozen cars pulled over and people shopping. I didn't figure it out in time to stop, and when I passed by again an hour later, everything was gone. But here, right in the field near my house, a machinga loaded down with sparkly Christmas decorations! I stopped the car and waved out the window to call him over, and from the comfort of the driver's seat I loaded up on fun decorations. I got a mylar "Merry Christmas" banner in red and gold...

 ...and a string of flashing lights shaped like roses.

The steel security grates in the windows are handy for stringing up lights.

But my favorite machinga  purchase has to be the "140 Music Lights with Music Device."

Play the video and listen to the sounds of the season! Two good things: I only paid about $6.00 for this, and it has a dial that lets me turn off the music!

I drove into town and had lunch and waited for Anna to finish work at 1:00. We had both been buying kitenge cloth over the last few weeks, with the intention of having dresses made. And now that we're so close to Christmas, we figured we should get it done because it's a traditional gift. In this case, I guess from ourselves to ourselves.

Don't confuse kitenge with khanga. Both are traditional African fabrics with wild prints, usually on light or mid-weight cotton fabric, with the best quality being produced through a wax print process. Khangas, which I wrote about in a previous post, are printed in squares with borders and a Swahili proverb. They're used in lots of ways, including as wrap around skirts, and occasionally sewn into dresses or skirts. Kitenge are cut lengths of cloth with a repeating pattern. They are also sometimes used as wrap arounds, but most often are sewn into dresses. Kitenge dresses are a nice, dressy outfit for occasions such as weddings and church services. Many Tanzanian women wear them to work. They're not as popular with younger women, who seem to prefer western styles. You see them everywhere around Arusha.

Anyway, Anna had previously found a good tailor. There are hundreds of them in town, but some are better than others, and we wanted a reference. Anna had given a Tanzanian woman a lift one day. The woman was wearing a beautiful kitenge dress, so Anna asked about tailors. The woman guided her to this shop in the business district. You can't just give an address here. You can narrow it down to a small area by citing landmarks. But to find one small shop, you just have to have a guide. 

The tailor shop was a small storefront with a counter, and behind the counter a tailor sewing and a girl heating an iron on a small charcoal stove. In front of the counter, a woman was hand sewing beads  and sequins into an elaborate floral design on a satin dress. Behind the counter were several large posters with multiple pictures of different kitenge dresses, and a catalog with more designs. Anna and I crowded behind the counter and pored over the pictures. About 1/4 of them were not modest enough to wear in Tanzania--must be those Nigerians. Interestingly, all of the models looked like ordinary, real African women. Most of them were in their 30's or 40's and were plump. That made it easier for me to envision what the designs would look like on my 52-year-old plump body. Anna picked two designs, and I picked one. The tailor brought out a notebook, looked at our pictures, measured us, and jotted down some mess of chicken scratchings that I don't know how he'll ever make sense of it. And then he snipped  a sample of each fabric and taped it to the notes.

Anna jumped in and started bartering prices for my dress, which I appreciated, because she's so much better at bartering than I am. All in Swahili, she asked for the first price. Then she told the tailor he should lower the price because I'm short (5' 3"), so there's less sewing. He said no, because I'm fat, so there's still a lot of sewing! So I told him, "What? I'm fat so the price is fat?" My Swahili's still not good, but I'm getting to where I can make a joke now and then. We were all laughing, me most of all. In Tanzania, it's not rude at all to comment on a person's physical appearance. Being fat is considered attractive, and friends will often greet each other after a long absence by saying, "You're becoming fat." It just tickled me to be called fat by a businessman who was selling me something. But hey, he had the numbers to back it up, if he could read them. Anna got the price down to 20,000 T shillings, or about $13.50 U.S.

Then Anna asked for the starting price on her dresses. I spoke up and said, "Thirty thousand, because she's tall." (6"0'.) Anna was outraged and the tailor laughed. She got a good price on her dresses, too.

We decided our next stop should be the big second-hand clothes market. I've never been there, and have been asking Anna to escort me there (too chicken to go on my own the first time). But first, I needed to stop somewhere and sit down and have a cold drink. I'd sweated about a liter inside the tailor shop, starting with standing near the charcoal stove for a minute too long. We headed to the Arusha Backpackers' Hotel.

Here's their water tank and generator, to cover the water shortages and power outages. I like the tinga-tinga painting on the tank.

The restaurant's on the roof, where we sat in the shade right against the railing and enjoyed a cool breeze while drinking a cold Coke. From up there, you can see everything happening on one of Arusha's main downtown streets.

Here are some Tanzanian ladies wearing kitenge.

  Anna had ridden the dala-dala to come meet me earlier. She ended up on a brand new one that still had a factory sticker on the inside of the door saying, "Do not stick arms or head outside while vehicle is moving."  This is a typical conductor posture, looking for prospective passengers. When she noticed the sticker, the conductor was riding just like this.
Refreshed and rehydrated (and caffeinated), we were ready to hit the second-hand clothing market.

The market is about a city block long, consisting of four of these open-sided sheds.

Most of the clothing is used, coming from all those donations you make to the Salvation Army and Goodwill and Deseret Industries. Some things are new, maybe overstocks or seconds. They have everything in there! I saw hundreds of pairs of jeans, hundreds of pairs of shoes, neat piles of used women's panties (no thanks, ick), prom dresses, bed sheets, towels, and drapes. Also, quite a selection of polar fleece jackets, and knitted winter hats and scarves. Also, no thanks, because I was sweating liters again.

We dived in at one end, right next to a display of dangling shoes.

They had a very good selection of daypacks and duffel bags and lots of brand new carry-on bags.

Some merchandise is hanging, and easy to see. A lot of it is stacked up on tables and you need patience and time to rummage around and find what you want.

I wasn't looking for anything specific, but ended up buying a cotton nightgown that was hanging up. I saw it and it reminded me I'd forgotten to bring my favorite one back from America with me. It's used, but in good condition. I'm squeamish about wearing used clothes, which I know is silly (and I think is American). So we'll see how many times I have to wash this cute nightgown before I feel comfortable sleeping in it.

Anna was looking for capri pants, not blue. After walking the length of the entire market and doubling back, a young salesman who was especially persistent stopped us at his large table piled with all kinds of pants. He frantically dug through the piles, pulling out every pair of capris that could be anywhere near Anna's size. She held the possibilities against her waist, trying to judge size by looking. The discard pile grew deeper, including a pair with big white and blue roses. We got into a rhythm where the vendor would hold up a pair and snap them a bit to show the size and stretch, then Anna or I would say yes or no and he would toss the yes's across the table to us. At one point he got going too fast and held up a really large, baggy, hot pink pair of capris. I shook my head no, and tried not to laugh. But pretty much my every thought marches right across my face, so he knew I wanted to laugh. Which made him laugh, and then I laughed. At this point, we were about 20 minutes into it. Anna wasn't sure whether any of the possible pairs would fit well enough. They do have a changing "room" set up outside the market, but it doesn't look very private.

That green cube is the changing "room."

By this time, our vendor really wanted to make a sale. So he offered a better changing room. He walked us back through about half of the market and into a stall with walls made of hanging blouses and skirts and dresses. At the back wall, they had constructed a little alley closed in by blouses. Anna took four pairs of capris, all brown and tan, no pink or flowers, and went behind the wall. I stood in the open doorway and told the two young male vendors that I was "Mama Askari" (Mama Security Guard). The vendors and I chatted in Swahili while Anna tried on pants. She ended up buying two pairs.

So, compared to Christmas shopping in America, I'd have to say Christmas shopping here requires more effort. But it was much less crowded and hectic here. Also, I didn't spend anywhere near as much as I would have in an afternoon in an American shopping mall. And I got a bit of Swahili practice for free. I won't get my finished kitenge dress until around New Year's Eve, so I'll have to report back on that later.

 Merry Christmas everybody everywhere!


  1. I love the blog. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas. I envy you without the frenzy and stress.

  2. Thanks, AC! Merry Christmas even with all the frenzy!

  3. Hello again, AC,
    I just clicked on your profile and realized who you are. I love your blog too!