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.


Michael Leen said...

Interesting read Chris. A lot of it rings true with what Ashley and I read in the book "African Friends and Money Matters" that you previously recommended.

Matt_Caz said...

Absolutely love this post. There is such a cultural gulf in expectation about access to food and resources - your experiences bring them out in stark contrast. Thanks for sharing another dimension of learning to blend in.

Zack said...

That's really interesting. Do you find yourself buying less out of self-consciousness? Or doing your larger shops further away in secret or something?

C.A. Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.A. Smith said...

(Fixed grammar error to post below)

This is an insightful post and thought provoking. Quite often we are taking the littlest things for granted and seldom have we reflected upon the impact of our actions. To me it also reminds me that everything we have is from God and that we’re here to serve each other. What we do (direct/indirect) has consequences, especially on those most vulnerable.

Thank you for sharing this challenge both you and Katie are experiencing.

Chaitali... said...

Very interesting. I now realize that we really do hoard up groceries for the week and something or the other does eventually go bad if not finished in time. I took the membership for Costco and realized there's not much one can buy for two people from Costco. It's about bulk. Anyway I think I digressed...but awesome read. Thanks for sharing.

Baldman76 said...

Thanks for everyone's comments. As to whether we have changed our purchasing habits based on these experiences, my answer is...sort of. The reality is, we are not the only ones that buy like this. We're under more scrutiny because we stand out from the crowd, but there are locals who buy in the same manner as we do.

For instance, there's a shop of the hill that sells big 5 or 10 kilo bags of flour, which we DON'T buy, but SOMEONE does or they wouldn't carry so much. And I saw a very poor woman the other day with a HUGE bag of charcoal, so she was buying in massive quantity. While this was not in our neighborhood, she lives in an equally poor area as Mabatini. Which brings out a point again about WHO does the buying. The locals use charcoal to cook or possibly to resell to others, so they wouldn't get a second glance buying a huge amount. But as "wazungu" there's the expectation that we don't actually NEED charcoal (we don't cook outside on little charcoal stoves like most everyone else does) nor are we reselling it, so people very well may assume that we are using things we don;t really need (even if we DO use it legitimately). So there are definitely expectation on social roles and status at play here.

But have I changed the way I shop? A little: I don't buy large quantities of charcoal, and I now always buy eggs based on how much is there and how many will remain after I make my purchase.

One last comment, while it was shopkeepers that made several of the comments I mentioned in my post, I haven't met a shopkeeper that has turned down my money. A sale is a sale, so regardless of public opinion, we ARE putting money into the local economy.

Baldman76 said...

Here’s a selection of comments about this post that were made on other websites:

JHB said:
Chris, this totally rings true to my TZ experience. We bought a big can of Nido powdered milk once (to stock up, and it's cheaper in bulk), and you should've seen the eye popping. During the early part of our contract, a former volunteer told us that kerosene repelled siafu ants. We had some siafu trying to invade our house, so we sprinkled some kerosene around the perimeter. Yeah. We had a crowd of people standing staring at us asking what we were doing. We didn't realize how expensive it was since the school gave it to us. We felt awful afterwards. Plus, people thought we were silly because siafu are excellent house cleaners, and if you had any kind of bug infestation like cockroaches, the siafu would eat them up and carry them away leaving your house spic and span! The secretary at the school joked that we could send the siafu to her house when we were done with them. I have so many more stories, too...

CA-W said:
Great blog. But you know, that can happen here in the states as well. I starting making my own laundry detergent, deodorant and more, and people here look at me like why are you buying all that stuff? When I tell them what I'm doing, they look at me like why not just go to the store and buy it. When I explain to them that for me it's about knowing what goes in the products that I use and having the freedom to make it when I want too, they look at me like that's not a good enough explanation. So, for me though we have plenty over here, people still give you a crazy look when it's something they are not just not accustom to seeing. It's just the way people are at times.

And here’s an exchange from another site:

CC said:
This is true of the urban poor in the U.S. as well. I remember marveling at people buying one roll of toilet paper at a time at the convenience store, for a price that per unit is much higher than buying a big package at Target. But those kind of bulk purchases just aren't feasible for many who are poor.

Chris Reid said:
Oh, yeah, I'm sure taking the "short-term view" is fairly universal when it comes to poverty. And I don't mean that as an insult; there are certainly people in poverty that DO envision long term plans, but many people don't have the means to look past RIGHT NOW. When you live hand-to-mouth and truly wake up everyday wondering whether you will eat TODAY, what happens TOMORROW simply fades into the background. "Planning" is a luxury that many folks are not afforded. I struggle to remember this when I see problems and issues that could be addressed fairly easily, but are not because it simply isn't on the radar of those around me.

SG said:
Is part of it "planning ahead" vs "trusting there is enough for today" ? I do know there are measured different approaches to time and planning based on income security/insecurity, but the flip side seems to be "there will be enough for all if we share what's available." Another thought - those who farm in the third world are very cognizant of setting aside seed for the next year and storing grain for the long term. Is this another instance of agriculturalist compared to hunter-gatherer approaches - seasons vs here-and-now? I often think how Cain & Abel was the original description of "The farmers and the cowhands should be friends" from "Oklahoma!"

Darleana McHenry said...

I have experienced this as well when I was in Ethiopia. When I would buy fruits and vegetables, people would raise their prices for other things, because they assumed that I had money to throw away. I learned early to shop with different people and not buy too much so that I wouldn't get the overindulgent Westerner looks. I didn't like having to go out and buy things as I needed them. I am coming to Mwanza in February, I would love to visit the mission.