Sunday, 8 June 2014

Hitting the shops in Lilongwe

My husband is not a fan of shopping. My husband thinks that trousers should be worn until the fabric has worn to invisibility at the crotch and the sleeve of every shirt has a fringe of loose threads dangling from the cuffs. Then, and only then, will he 'hit the shops'. Leith Mills in Edinburgh is his favourite establishment, for there his golfing outfits - preferred wear for all occasions, seasons and locations - are barely a third of the price it is everywhere else. If the shopkeepers of the capital had to depend on Stuart's custom for survival, they would all go to the wall within a week. One article of clothing a year will never keep any tailoring establishment in business.

I, on the other hand, am a strong believer in supporting the local economy. I do this regularly and conscientiously in Edinburgh, but am in my element when shopping abroad - and nowadays I am never more 'abroad' than in Malawi. Having filled our Edinburgh flat with a tasteful, comprehensive and conversation-provoking array of Ugandan artefacts from our two years living on the equator, and, by so doing, saved that country's economy singlehanded, it is now my mission to do the same for my new 'second home'. However, whereas our family bank account has still not recovered from the airline's punitive charges for overweight luggage in December 2012 (they seemed to think that our six suitcases and five pieces of hand baggage were being used to export large blocks of granite), I am now in the lucky position of being able to drip feed my Malawian purchases into the family home, modest suitcase by modest suitcase, every three or four months or so. This has the added advantage that I am able to sneak them quietly up the stairs behind my spouse's back, discretely producing them one by one for public viewing, once Stuart has come to terms with previous acquisitions. This, then, is the context for my shopping expeditions in Malawi.

So, what is it like, hitting the shops in the capital, Lilongwe? Indeed, what are the shops themselves like?

Well, it has to be said, many of them are very like the thousands of other bland department stores and supermarkets all over the globe. Malawi being in Southern Africa, many of the modern shopping centres are owned by South African businessmen who have realised that neighbouring and nearby countries are worth considering for investment. In Uganda, it was largely, but not entirely, Kenyan entrepreneurs who dominated. Odd how particular countries take lead positions within their own regions.

Here is the Old Town Mall - a misnomer if ever there was one - all plate glass and shops with useless but decorative objects.

And here is a picture of the Nico Centre, on Kamuzu Procession Road at the heart of Lilongwe's Old Town, so called because the original buildings were there before the building of Capital City, from which the country is governed.

The Nico Centre's car park bears witness to the social composition of its clientele... does the road leading into and out of the complex, thronged as it is by the four-by-fours favoured by expatriate representatives of donor organisations and wealthy local residents.

Yet, the flaunted wealth is not all there is to see. The pavements, where there are any, are dotted with treacherous traps for the visually-challenged.

Clearly far more money goes into the private pocket than into the public purse. Alternatively, no sooner has it got to the public purse than it jumps swiftly out again.

In-between the cars weave less wealthy shoppers, some with babies strapped to their backs, some barefoot, many with heavy loads.

Their shopping is not done at the Nico Centre. Here a small group of women gather round a plastic bucket full of recycled plastic water bottles containing a muddy-looking liquid. It wasn't petrol and it wasn't honey or cooking oil. What was it? Who knows. Home-brewed beer, perhaps?

Women like the one on the right above set up small stalls selling airtime scratch cards at the entrance to the Nico Centre. A destitute old woman is begging from her, but to no avail.

Well, but what about me, though? Where do I do my shopping? Well, I have to admit to having frequented Game and Shoprite, the two outlets most often patronised by bazungu, mainly for products like European shampoo which doesn't relax my hair (it needs all the help it can get and has never been in any danger of developing tight curls), soap which doesn't lighten my skin (westerners want to look brown!) and a wider choice of fruit.

I didn't buy my fruit from there this time, however, but from vendors outside Old Town Mall, selling strawberries grown out at Bunde Agricultural College. They were sweet and flavoursome, but do not, I think, yet form part of the diet of ordinary Malawians.

However, most of my shopping has been done directly across the road from the Nico Centre.

In front of the Post Office is a large informal market where over-enthusiastic stall holders ambush unwary tourists and sell them local crafts at exorbitant prices. Of course, I am exceedingly wary, but that doesn't stop me falling prey time after time after time. The point is, these are genuinely hand made crafts, though the huge number of them may look as if that is not the case. Many of the entrepreneurs are students trying to pay their school fees, high school drop outs struggling to scratch a living and real wood carvers endeavouring to find a market for their products. Here you can buy many different kinds of wooden artifacts, some brought from the Dedza/Mangochi area where wood carving is a local speciality. From Dedza region come the wooden cars and lorries. There are traditional wooden chairs, as in this picture, elephant carvings and intricate bowls.

Many of the artifacts are a dark brown or black.

'Ebony', says the stallholder, lying confidently through his teeth.

'Shoe polish,' I respond, for I had seen them massaging it lovingly into the grain of the wood.

Last time I was here I watched while the craftsman carved my grandson's name onto a small block of wood decorated with a chambo fish, the national fish of Lake Malawi.

He held the wood between his feet and used homemade hand tools to chisel away at it. I worried for his toes!

Cotton is grown in Malawi, though in the past the prices have been undercut by cheap British, and now cheap Chinese goods and ghastly secondhand clothes. However, a wide range of chitenje - women's wraparound skirts - are sold at the Post Office and elsewhere and that is where I got the fabric I bought last time.

Charming Noah's arks stand beached on the red earth, their beautifully carved prospective guests queuing two by two as they inch towards Mr and Mrs Noah. I am a connoisseur of Noah's arks and have chosen as one of my life's missions the purchasing of the perfect Noah's ark for my grandson (Tim, don't let him read this post!). The trouble is that each time I see one I like, I panic that I'll never see as good a one again, so I buy it on the spot. I then see an even better one.

As a result, I am now the proud owner of three Noah's arks. Two I bought last time. The third, a miniature version, I bought yesterday, completely unable to resist the young boy who was selling it, who said he had carved it himself, and I'm pretty sure he had. Like all Malawian Noah's arks, it contains a fatal design flaw. The animal-loading entrance is located below the waterline so the elephants will almost certainly have to spend all the voyage bailing out.

The apple is to give an indication of its size. The tiny animals are lovingly carved, male and female carefully delineated. The bigger the ark, the more animals there are and hence the wider the variety. Nevertheless, I am quite taken with the over-sized frogs which could give the giraffes a run for their money.

I have already seen the best of all the Noah's arks, a lovely big chunky boat with equally chunky animals, but I would have to leave behind most of the contents of my suitcases and possibly pay yet more overweight fees to get it back home. Sorry, Jeremy.

This time my purchase wasn't made in front of the Post Office but in the Nico Centre car part where there was a stall run by an organisation called Chance for Change. Its aims are to encourage young entrepreneurs, so I had no qualms about my unnecessary purchase of a surplus Noah's ark.

Oh, and I also bought a pair of sandals for my granddaughter.

These are not the only things I bought my grandchildren, of course. Every time I go to foreign country I buy my granddaughter a local doll. The last time I came to Malawi, however, was an exception. Having been used to the meticulously sewn dolls in Uganda and Tanzania, I was disappointed last time I came by the comparitively crude equivalents in Malawi. Now, you have to remember that few, if any, Ugandan, Tanzanian or Malawian children will own a doll, or if they do it will be cheap plastic with pink body and yellow hair and made in China. Handsewn local dolls are for the children of expatriates or for tourists who take them home and display them in their sitting rooms. My granddaughter, however, said she would like to have a Malawian doll, despite its possible limitations, so a Malawian doll she should have.

My friend and I spent quite some time trying to choose the least physically challenged of the dolls on offer, the one which would at least not terrify its owner. So here is what we found, the small doll on the left for my baby grandson, the mother with baby on her back on the right for my granddaughter.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

So those are the outcomes of my shopping trips in Lilongwe. They don't tell you much about the shopping experiences of local residents or about the purchasing of the staples of life for ordinary families. What they do tell you about is the privilege of having money to spend on relative luxuries, unlike so many of the local population, and the pleasure to be had from purchasing well-made (well usually!) local products.

As one stallholder said after I had yet again paid well over the odds for a bagful of necklaces made out of seeds (imagine what my husband said!). 'You are a good woman. You are helping the families of Malawi!'

I realised then that I had paid far far too much. They really had seen me coming!

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