Thursday, November 07, 2013
Shopping Among the Poor
One of the realities of living abroad is that even the littlest things that you wouldn’t expect can have underlying cultural baggage. I want to share a few experiences involving shopping in our neighborhood- and not in a “conspicuous consumption” type of shopping, but simply buying daily necessities.
Katie and I shop all over town for what we need. There are a few more “Western” style grocery stores around town where we’ll pick up a few items as needed- things like cheese, ketchup, cereal, etc- that the locals don’t generally eat. We buy most of our vegetables at the big local market downtown. But for many of the basic staples we need throughout the week, we shop at the little local stores- called a duka (or maduka in plural). We buy sugar, flour, matches, soap, an occasional soda, bread, eggs, charcoal etc. We frequent several different shops and stalls and have a good rapport with most all the shopkeepers.
We live in a neighborhood called Mabatini (I recently posted some pictures here). We moved here because we could live next door to our fellow missioners the Rossers as well as live right down the hill from several Maryknoll priests and brothers. For all its challenges, we very much like the neighborhood. But Mabatini is a microcosm for all the issues in Mwanza. There’s crime, there’s prostitution, there’s trash everywhere. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city. Poverty abounds. People do a double-take when we tell them where we live. Their eyes get wide and they say “I didn’t know there were any white people that lived there.”
So this is where we live. We live among the poor. People here buy just what they need for the day, and maybe buy just what they need for the next meal, making trips to the store multiple times to get just what they need and nothing more. They scrounge for cash and many times people will come to buy just a few hundred shillings of an item (which is just pennies in US dollars). People may work all day to get a few hundred shillings and then buy food at the end of the day to have some semblance of dinner for their family.
On the other hand, Katie and I tend to want to “stock up” on things. I think this is a normal, American view of things; why go to a store everyday to buy things when you can buy enough for the week in one trip?
This is not the lifestyle of poverty, and people notice.
For instance, our guard cooks food for our dogs every night, so we buy charcoal for the little stove he uses. A few weeks ago, I went up the hill to buy charcoal and decided to buy a few extra bags of it to put some in our storage shed because sometimes my guard forgets to tell me when we are out until it’s late in the evening. So I bought three bags. On the way back, I stopped at another shop to buy something else, and the shopkeeper looked at the bags of charcoal and asked why I needed so much. I answered that I buy it for the guard and wanted to get more a few bags so that I would have some extra. She just stared at me for a second and then said with a hint of a scoff “Most people can get by with just one bag around here” (or something to that effect). I walked home deeply self-conscious of the big bags full of all the stuff I bought and hyper-conscious of how everyone I passed on the way home was giving me sideway glances to stare at my bags. (And this was not just paranoia or over-sensitivity at the time, because I’ve noticed it since).
Another day we were having company, so I went up the hill to buy several sodas. I bought something like 6 or 8, and we only ended up drinking about half. The next morning as I was walking by, the shopkeeper called out to me asking for the bottles back. I told here I hadn’t finished them yet and would bring them back when I was done. She looked completely baffled and just stared at me, I assume because the idea of buying something you didn’t actually NEED is unheard of in our area.
We also like to buy a few days worth of flour for our dogs’ food (they get fed a type of stiff porridge called ugali). When people buy flour here, they buy little bags of it, so when we ask for 2 kilos of flour, we’re definitely buying more than anyone else does. Katie was making a purchase one afternoon when one of our neighbors walked up, looked at the big bag of flour, and snorted “Did you get enough?” clearly reproaching Katie.
Another time, I went to the duka and asked for eggs. They had six eggs left and I needed about that many, so I bought them all. Our friend David went later to also get eggs and when he asked for some, he told us that the shopkeeper said “Your friends bought all the eggs, so now there’s none left for anyone else.”
So with that, here are a few final thoughts about these instances:
• I expect that these instances have more to do with the poverty than any underlying cultural difference, but living in poverty does create a unique culture of its own, so maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, we are the outliers here.
• The poverty of our area is immense and people really do live hand-to-mouth here. The idea of planning out food and supplies for a week, or even just a few days, is not a luxury that most people here have in Mabatini. And as welcomed as we DO feel here in this neighborhood, the fact that we are NOT poor will always mark us as outsiders. We live a simple lifestyle, but we’re not poor. We’re strange to the locals anyway, but our lifestyle is lavish compared to most everyone else’s in the area.
• Simply walking down the street after buying a few bags of supplies can be seen as ostentatious and to some, a sign of greed- ie, if we buy up all the items, then there’s none left for others, thus we have no concern for those around us. To buy MORE than we need at this moment is selfish.
So, like I stated above, one of the realities of living where we live is that even the littlest things can have underlying cultural baggage. Even just buying a few extra eggs.