Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Every week, usually on Sundays after church, I venture down to our local market at Lunzu Trading Centre and purchase our weekly supply of produce. The market—teeming with activity on each of its market days of Sunday and Thursday—is always alive with vendors calling out their products to shoppers as they go by. I’ve always enjoyed this time as a chance to interact with the people and to practice my Chichewa.
Gradually, over the weeks, I have come to realize that the social organism that is the Lunzu market, is an entirely other species than the supermarkets, local grocers, and even farmers’ markets we have back home in the U.S. Saying this, I am not just referring to the reality that as you walk in the hot sun, through a maze of wooden pole stalls, while everyone is speaking a Bantu language it is nearly impossible to confuse your situation from being in an air-conditioned, neatly aisled, modern supermarket or even a tented, ordered, farmer’s market with signs and prices easily seen by the unassisted eye. While the Lunzu market is not necessarily chaotic, and there is an order to it all—certain vendors of certain products placed in different locations—there is a fundamental element to it that is not easily grasped by those uninitiated in its ways.
Initially, I would bargain with the vendors over the price of everything. Quickly I realized the price was much more negotiable the more you were willing to buy. Then, after awhile I realized the great benefit of becoming a consistent customer of one vendor. Rewards of “bonuses” (extra produce being thrown in with your purchase), a greater willingness to bargain, or even offering products at a former price when the market price had risen are all ways of enticing customers into remaining faithful to their suppliers. And the suppliers value their customers—even to the point that last week two old ladies were arguing over whose customer I was, because the one I had been recently buying from was gone one week and I bought from her neighbor.
While all of this adds up to a very different approach to the economy of produce distribution, the real factor separating it from the way we do things back home is the relational aspect of it all. Occasionally, I stop to greet a person I see every week, converse casually about how our families are, and then notice they don’t really have anything I want or need. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sucker for buying just anything for the sake of feeling sorry for someone and there have been times I’ve greeted someone and then bought nothing. But the difference between here and Publix is that you hesitate to do it. Or at least you hesitate to do it frequently to someone who has gotten used to a certain amount of income coming from you each week.
Many economists have written articles these past few years with the basic message of the recession having resulted from our having lost any semblance of a face to face economy that prevents an overemphasis on the bottom dollar. Nowadays, when I go to the market, it’s less about finding the best price and buying exactly what’s on my list. Rather, it’s about seeing what my friends have brought to offer to me for the upcoming week’s meals.