Imagine a world without Walgreens, Macy’s, Banana Republic, Nordstrom’s, Blockbuster, Ethan Allen, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Safeway or Whole Foods. Instead of driving to your favorite mall or grocery store to buy clothes, food or supplies from a salesperson working for a corporation, you walk down the dirt road to your local market to buy goods from a neighbor, friend or acquaintance. Instead of one-stop shopping, you stop at several different stores to pick up all the supplies you need, relishing each transaction by engaging in conversation and slowly passing over the bills and coins for payment. Each purchase you make goes directly to supporting their family. And you count on them coming to your stop when they need the things you sell. This is the cycle of loyalty that I’ve observed during my time in Dar es Salaam and I have to admit, it’s a bit refreshing.
Dar is a big city, over four million people, and yet the suburbs of this city still retain a strong sense of community. Most of the suburbs I visit are only a few kilometers out of town, yet it can take over an hour or more to travel from the city center because of the constant traffic jams. So even though members of these communities could go downtown to the big markets and wholesale stores to buy their goods at a cheaper price, the transport costs are prohibitive. As you travel down the main road of any neighborhood you pass several shops competing to sell you the same types of goods. You’ll find hardware supplies, furniture stores, groceries, butchers, salons, pharmacies, clothing stores, movie rentals, internet cafes and restaurants. Sometimes I wonder how all of these businesses make money, since there is so much competition. But each business doesn’t need to make more than enough to support one family.
In addition to these store-based businesses, there is another tier of business-minded individuals who try to eek out their living by selling just one item. It’s common to find young men walking abound the city selling only samosas or tea or small bags of peanuts. There are women and men who walk the residential neighborhoods with baskets filled with one product (fish, lettuce, bananas) hoping to entice you to buy that one item from them by shouting their offerings while they walk past your door. This economy includes so many of these micro transactions. Even cigarettes are sold individually at the local cold drink stand. Every space for a middle man has been exploited and developed into an enterprise. This is done out of necessity, not choice.
Sure, there are a few corporations in Tanzania – banks, mobile phone providers, prepared foods and drinks, utilities – where you must buy services directly to cover their costs and staff. But even some of them have outsourced their distribution of goods to small businesses. You buy a mobile phone voucher from a local shop or guy on the street and bottled food from the micro grocery on the corner of your block.
As I observed this interdependency, I tried to cut my ties to my old ways. I stopped buying at one of the few supermarkets in town and started purchasing things from my local store. I walked the streets of my residential area trying to spend money with each business I passed along the way. I rented movies, had my bangs trimmed, bought mangos from the mango guy and lettuce from the lettuce lady. I met the people of my neighborhood. We shared smiles and elementary Swahili sentences. I handed over the money with respect, enjoying counting coins and handling grubby bills. When my purse was empty and my hands were full, I went home satisfied and feeling more accepted.
Is this more personalized economy better than what we have in the US? I’m not a trained economist but I know that Tanzania has not seen their economy grow for many years, so it’s not a model to strive for. Is this more personalized economy better for the soul? Absolutely.