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Mr Cheaper Price: Being a Consumer in Tanzania, East Africa

The perils of being an American consumer in East Africa.

Being a consumer, a white American consumer, in Tanzania can be perplexing and exhausting. You know that you pay more for absolutely everything, and you are fine with that. ... For a while, at least.

In the beginning, you try to outsmart the system by comparing prices. In this duka/shop the basket sells for 10,000 shillings and in that one it's 12,000. Here the necklace is $15 and there he'll sell it for $12.

But as you work your way through the narrow, overcrowded dirt pathways that separate the long rows of vendor stalls that are packed so tightly together in this Maasai marketplace, you can't think about comparative shopping. ... You can't think about anything. Sellers are in your face, calling at you, grabbing your hands and arms.

"Mama, come to my shop Mama. I have best prices.""No mama, come to my shop—I have better prices. Just look mama, just look."

You make an executive decision to only buy from the women, and you tell all the men who are gathered around in your rudimentary Swahili, "Ninapenda wanawake." "I like women."

It doesn't come out right, but soon enough they get the message when you push your way through their human barrier into the stalls of only the mamas.

In these tiny 4x6 stalls, things are different. The women don't shout, push or pester. Instead one mama blocks the tiny doorframe with her body to prevent intrusions.

And, for a moment, you feel kind of like you are shopping at home. You finger everything leisurely; you pick up carvings and examine the craftsmanship; you feel all the textures of the various items in your hands; you try on all the jewelry; and your wrap yourself in the colorful kangas.

"How do these look?" you ask the mama, holding up a pair of bright orange beaded earrings by your ears.

"Nzuri sana," she replies with a smile. "Very good."

Of course. What else is she going to say?As you gather together your pile of carvings, kangas, salad tongs, salt and pepper shakers, jewelry, baskets and more, you learn that this mama, whose name is Brightness, is a 24-year-old mother of four young children.

She quotes you a price that you know is too high, but you no longer care because now you are thinking of baby Junior, toddlers Marian and Alfred and 8-year-old Bayo. As you leave, you embrace your new friend and exchange blessings. "Mungu akubariki sana," you say, and step out into the light and the chaos of the market.

Here in Tanzania there is no set price for anything. What you pay is a reflection of who you are, how much you know, how much or little you are respected and—of course—what color is your skin.

Every time you are asked what you paid for this or that. ... From a taxi ride to a loaf of bread, you see heads shake. ... Tsk tsk tsk. You overpaid again.

As a mzungu mgeni—a white visitor—you feel like a walking ATM machine. Everyone wants to make a withdrawal, and no one seems shy about asking.

The first day you arrive you go to church with a Tanzanian friend. You are given the warmest of welcomes. Everyone has come out to sing and dance for you.

And when the collection basket comes around you happily give a large cash donation. You are a bit surprised the second time the basket comes around, but again you give without reservation.

By the third, fourth and fifth asks, you are bewildered—and broke. You are out of cash, and you are not even 24 hours into this trip.

The head priest then calls you forward. As you stand in front of the congregation looking out over hundreds of people your friend tells you that the priest is saying they need $1,500 to complete the half-built church you are standing in.

He wants you to give. Your heart begins to race. You panic, and then pause, and finally you say you will pledge $200 to the campaign. A few people cheer. Most, however, are clearly disappointed you haven't given more.

Over the course of two weeks you visit nearly 20 organizations. To each you and your team give or pledge hundreds of dollars. Some thousands. Many clearly want more, and one even goes so far to ask why your donation is so small.

At the end of the trip you find an Internet cafe on the side of the single paved road. It is clean and quiet. You sit down at one of the six laptops that are lined up on a single long table.

You are excited to check your email, connect with family and friends at home, and enjoy the hot coffee topped off with fresh milk and lots of sugar that was just delivered to you by the lone waitress.

In less than three minutes, a group of young boys enter. They must have spotted you from the road. They come with necklaces and bracelets. They crowd around and press their wares in your face.

You are tired of the games now, and frankly you are annoyed. But they, like so many others, are relentless and won't leave without a good fight, so you acquiesce. It's easier.

"Why aren't you boys in school?" you ask.

"Mama, buy my necklace. Only $10," says the oldest boy, ignoring the question.

"$10! No way. Ghali sana! That's too expensive."

"OK $9. We are hungry mama. Please mama. Help us. You must buy."

"First, tell me your names. How old are you boys?"

"My name is Michael and I have 15 years," says the oldest in rough English. You know he is lying. He barely looks 12.

"I am Joseph.13," says the next boy, who is slightly smaller than Michael and dressed in rags.

The littlest of the three is the most animated. Dressed in old tan shorts that are held up by a string belt, he is full of smiles. He looks up at me with his big brown eyes and flashes a wide grin. "Cheaper price."

"Yes," you say. "I know, I know. ... You have a better price for me than Michael."

"No," he smiles. "That is my name. My name is Mr. Cheaper Price."

"Your name is Mr Cheaper Price?" you ask incredulously.

"Yes, my name is Mr. Cheaper Price."

You smile, and proceed buy everything Mr Cheaper Price and his friends have to sell.

Anne Wells of Darien is the founder of UNITE The World With Africa. Visit the website: http://unitetnz.org/ for information about Unite's tours to Africa; their educational programs and online marketplace: The Ashe Collection; Unite's collaboration with The Sega Girls School, which serves girls at risk of teen pregnancy, child labor, and human trafficking; and much more. Email Anne directly at anne@unitetnz.org/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Leslie Yager December 14, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Beautifully written, Anne. I felt like I was there in the market with you. And church. And the café.

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