Cara Giaimo
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Buying a Wedding Dress in Mto wa Mbu

July 27, 2010 @ 3:03 AM | Permalink

A couple of my good friends are getting fake-married tomorrow. It's a long story. There are 23 of us American students fenced into a 4 or 5 km-squared camp, greeted by the same buttered toast and sunburnt faces every day, mentally embargoed by classes and keeping in touch with home. Tomorrow is a day off and we want a celebration, so we're making an excuse for one. We have a volunteer bride and groom, an order into the camp kitchen for a wedding cake (two tiers! one more than any of the buildings within twenty miles of here), an order out to Arusha for champagne, a feline ringbearer (the camp cat), a volunteer photographer (for our grandkids), and about thirty white plastic Jambo brand chairs in stacks at the edge of the overlook, ready to be set out in rows, under a cliffside acacia, growing spiderwebs. But we still need a dress.

            At home in suburban Massachusetts, I actively avoid shopping. I definitely never lie about my homework being done in order to go.  Luckily, I’ve watched enough bad TV to know how to do it, and am able to assure our student affairs manager, Sarah, that I’m finished with the rough draft of my research paper (and I am! . . . it’s just very, very rough) and join the carful of similarly deceitful (or possibly just more hardworking) students.  We are headed to Mto wa Mbu, a nearby town, to look for bridal attire.

            There are no malls in rural Tanzania.  Internet shopping is also not an option (a. a general lack of internet; b. the Tanzanian mail system, which is halfheartedly corrupt - some things make it through, some don’t).  If we have any luck, it’s going to be in a duka, aka a shop, one of the three types of retailers regularly available within an hour’s drive of where we live.

            Dukas remind me of small city grocery stores.  Often they’re more stall than shop, with only enough room inside for the person manning (or womanning) the counter and whichever older relative of his (or hers) wants to get out of the heat that day.  You walk up to the counter, which often triples as a glass display case and stock-storage area, and denote what you want, often by pointing.  There’s a set price, cash is exchanged for the product, change is given.  I usually end up using that change to buy something else I spotted directly after purchasing the first thing.  Dukas across the board are well-stocked, at least during the low-tourism season.  If a natural disaster hit Tanzania, I’d flee to a duka.

            The first one we stop at is larger, and is a hybrid between a dress shop and a grocery store.  It’s rectangular, with floor-to-ceiling goods along the walls, and an island in the center made of a counter and a horizontal meat freezer, with the cashier and her grandmother sandwiched between. There’s room inside for all of us if we stand congaline-style and don’t try to pass each other.   I end up next to the refrigerator, which houses various candy bars (Twix, Bounty, Cadbury) and pyramidical juice boxes (mango, apple, orange, mixed fruit (mango, apple, and orange)).  People here like their chocolate cold.  We have no luck here, so we thank the cashier and file out.

            As soon as we hit sunlight, the second Tanzanian retail option homes in.  Roadside hawkers tend to be extremely charming, have nicknames like Che Guavera or Mister Cheap (I have met at least six Mister Cheaps, enough to make up a small franchise), speak at least four languages, and sell things that they haven’t made.  They’re a little like the uniformed people around my age in college towns who try to get you to pledge money or sign petitions.  I have tenuous friendships with a lot of the hawkers in Mto wa Mbu from spending so much time here doing research, but I’m afraid these friendships are probably mostly based on them hoping I’ll eventually buy something from them, which makes me feel bad.  Still, I say hi when I spot Che, and I tell him what we’re looking for.  Everyone around immediately has somewhere to take us.  The man selling wooden birds knows a guy, the boy with the bone necklaces has a cousin, Mister Cheap #7 can live up to his name if we’ll just follow him around the corner.  “And then after, you look at my things, just to look, ok?”  We smile and keep walking and say maybe.

            To be honest, I used to not like shopping in Africa, either, because it’s an activity that, if you’re a white person, tends to be foisted upon you.  You can’t crack your car window near a marketplace or a park gate without having some sort of carved wooden animal forced through it.  Once, loaded down with purchases already, my friend Lia was tailed back to our car by a man selling refrigerator-sized pieces of green cloth printed with Barack Obama’s face.  “You said you’d buy from me!” he insisted.  Using most of his oxygen intake to shout kept him from moving fast enough to completely close the gap between them, but still, he was gaining.  “Hapana asante hapana asante hapanaasante” Lia muttered, as we’d been taught (it means “no thank you”), walking more and more quickly, getting to the car, climbing in, letting momentum close the door, cranking up the window . . . but he was a bit too quick for her and the corner of the cloth that she had (apparently) accidentally contractually obligated herself to buy got caught in the closed teeth of the window.  As we drove away, it tumbled open and flapped behind us like a giant piece of futuristic money.  The man ran behind us, grabbing at the back fender of the moving car and still shouting, until Lia realized what was going on and freed it.

            Another friend, Coral, still speaks darkly of Mama Manwell, who tricked her into paying far too much for an ungulate-studded bowl shaped like the African continent at the gates of Amboseli National Park. 

            Still, I follow Che, because he’s helped me before, and everyone else follows me because I look purposeful.  Soon we’re in the Maasai market, a block crowded with curio shops, the third retail option.  We avoid these today, do more polite smiling and head shaking when we’re invited inside (“just for a minute!  Dakika moja!  I give you student price!”).  It’s very easy to get sucked into a curio shop.  You go in looking for one thing – say, a carved wooden rhinoceros for your uncle, who loves rhinoceroses – and soon you’re examining each of the 800 in there to see which one has the most personality, which one speaks to you, which one you can reeeeally visualize on your uncle’s desk, in a place of honor, right next to the picture of his kids at the waterpark.  And then before you know it you’ve bought five, plus a headdress you KNOW is historically inaccurate and two sets of soapstone coasters, and the owner is telling you you are welcome anytime and to bring your friends, and you stumble back out onto the dusty street blinking like you’ve just come out of a movie theater and what the heck are you going to do with five rhinos.  So we keep our heads down, to avoid this fate and the flock of chickens we’re slowly overtaking, and make it to Che’s choice of duka, at the end of a row of shops.  It’s hung all over with dresses; the whole place looks like an inflated room-sized patchwork quilt. 

            Amanda, our bride, begins examining the wares.  By now, the hawkers have caught up.  Ryan tells one man that he doesn’t have room to take any more souvenirs home, and the man starts trying to sell him a suitcase.  Coral and Che begin happily speaking Spanish – Che’s been teaching himself and takes every opportunity to practice, and Coral misses home, which for her is Puerto Rico.  With the help of the shopmistress, Amanda finally finds a lovely pink dress, and our shopping trip is finished.  Most of us have managed to end up with some souvenir without remembering exactly why or how it happened.  Soon we'll pack it away and forget it until we unearth it a few weeks later and give it to someone at home.  It's not really what you buy at the market that stays with you.

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