27 October 2014

visiting local food markets in tanzania.

Whenever I read about traveling to some faraway, exotic land, travel writers always underscore the importance and fun of checking out the local food markets. Funny that I've been reading about this for awhile, until it suddenly dawned on me... "Hey, that's what we do almost every day!"

Now that we've been in Mwanza for almost ten months, visiting the local markets has gone from fun!-exciting!-let's go use our new language skills! back to "Um, is it my turn to go get groceries or yours?" Living is different than traveling, right?

But really, going to a local market is a great way to get a feel for the local culture. Here's what you can expect to experience in the market ten steps away from our door.

Sights and Smells

During my first trip to a local market, I was overwhelmed by the sights and smells of quintessential Tanzania. I remember loving, at first glance, all of the vibrant colors, which stood in stark contrast to the usually bland grocery stores we traipse through in the United States. (White floors, beige shelving -- am I right?) In Tanzania, all of the women are donning bright kangas, a local fabric, wrapped around their waists like a skirt. Some have matching fabrics on their heads, with babies swaddled on their backs and children hovering nearby to assist mom.

a kanga - my first tanzanian gift!

And the produce just looks so fresh. Sometimes, too fresh, like, "Hmmm, someone should have bought that a couple of days ago." But no matter! There's always a lot of healthy competition for customers in our market so I rarely feel like I have to settle for less-than-fresh produce.

Even though I'm a "local" at our market, I still hear many shouts of "Mzungu!" as I make my rounds. It annoys me, especially in the morning when I'm not my cheeriest self, but I do my best to ignore them. I've also made a point to buy from folks who treat me like a human being, instead of a zoo exhibit, which is how we sometimes feel. If I can't talk them out of using certain words to address me, I have a feeling money is the global language we can all understand!

Back to shopping. We've been at this for awhile, so we now have our "people," meaning we have between 10 and 15 sellers who we buy almost everything from. You name it - onions, dagaa, chapati, or mangoes - I've got a guy or more often, a gal, who I make a beeline for when I need that particular item. (Not sure why but most of the local sellers are women!)

these sorry looking dudes are marabou storks. they love hanging out around markets, so they can eat fish scraps and trash!

The Experience of Shopping

Making a beeline for groceries does look a little different here than it does in the US. Culturally, we can't just pick up what we want and pay for it without a word. We constantly need to prepare ourselves for greetings, a conversation regarding what we're looking to buy and when we're looking to eat said produce, perhaps some slight haggling over the price, and words of farewell on the way out.

Although I struggle to get myself talking in the morning, I love the tradition of sellers helping me pick out the right produce. My avocado mama always asks me when I'm going to eat my avocado and  when I answer, she reaches into her pile of avocados without a word to help me pick one with the perfect ripeness! That's great customer service in a country that sorely needs it.

Here's a sample conversation, translated into English, with my tomato lady:

Me: How's the morning?
Mama Thomas*: Good. How's everything at home?
Me: It's good. How are the children?
Mama: They're doing fine. How many shillings worth of tomatoes do you need?
Me: (pointing to different piles of tomatoes, sorted by size) How much are you selling them for?
Mama: These are 300 shillings for four tomatoes (about 18 cents) and these are 400 shillings for four (about 24 cents).
Me: (pointing to the bigger tomatoes) Let's do 800 shillings of these tomatoes.
Mama: Okay. And here are two extra.**
Me: Thank you! Have a good Sunday!
Mama: You too! Say hello to everyone at home for me!

*Women, in addition to their first names, are commonly known by the name of their first-born child. For example, my tomato lady's oldest child is named Thomas, so she's known as Mama Thomas.

**It's not unheard of for sellers to throw in "extras" for their best customers. Mama Thomas almost always gives more tomatoes than I ask for and my potato guy will often throw another potato to tip the scale past the weight I need.

the view from our rice seller's shop!

You'll notice in the conversation above there was no bargaining over the price, largely because I've come to learn common prices for most of our produce and because I trust Mama Thomas to give me a fair price, even if it varies from week to week.

When we settled down in Mwanza, though, I was really worried about haggling, as I think most Westerners generally are. I struggled between not wanting to seem rude to the seller and not wanting to be ripped off! What I've come to find is that most everything in Tanzania has a fixed price, with very little opportunity to rip others off. This is due to the fact that all sellers sell at the same rate, so if one seller tries to up their price, they're going to lose out on a lot of customers.

Don't get me wrong, Tanzanians have tried (and succeeded!) in ripping me off but it happened more in the beginning, when I wasn't sure of myself in the language. If you know how to articulate yourself  in Kiswahili, I don't think you'd have too much of a problem. And even if the price is slightly higher than normal, the amount is minimal compared to West African countries, where I've heard the price can be exaggerated to five or ten times the actual cost!

The Weekly Grocery Bill

So how much does it cost to do our weekly grocery shopping? Here's what we bought this week:

Onions - Half a Kilo
30 cents

Bananas - 2
12 cents

Mangoes - 3
54 cents

Avocado - One as big as your face!
24 cents

Potatoes - Half a Kilo
24 cents

Rice for Noli - Two Kilos

Sugar - One Kilo

Tomatoes - 8 (Plus 2 since I'm a good customer!)
48 cents

Spaghetti - 1 lb.
78 cents

Eggs - One Tray or 30 Eggs

Grand total - drumroll please! - $8.99! Not too shabby, huh? I should mention that this is technically not all of our grocery shopping, as we usually visit one of the smaller groceries in the city for our milk, cheese, yogurt, and Western products we can't find in the local market. And those prices are not cheap. But still! Eating healthy and fresh food is affordably done in Tanzania, so we're thankful for that.

If you're planning on visiting Tanzania for the first time, we highly recommend checking out the markets and doing your food shopping like a local. Even if you don't have much Kiswahili, the point-and-nod method will serve you well. Bring your own plastic bags (or buy them at six cents a pop!), try to greet your sellers, and have fun shopping!


  1. Hi,

    Your pictures make me miss Tz so much. I was wondering if you would share some of what you prepare for meals. I am a fairly good cook in the States but feel limited by the lack of variety there (or possibly my lack of knowledge in how to prepare certain raw ingredients.) I also enjoyed and identified with your previous post on the lack of prepared foods.


    1. Hi Shana, it's great to hear from you! When and where were you in Tanzania? In terms of what we prepare for meals, we eat almost exclusively vegetarian: soups, sandwiches, pastas, and rice. I'm always looking for new recipes! If you have any ideas, I'm all ears. :)