As two nice men packed my supermarket bags this morning, I got to thinking – what are the day-to-day shopping things in Nairobi that you would not experience in UK? I then decided to think of ten differences – which can also serve as top ten tips for anybody new to the experience. 1. Shopping is always packed for you either into plastic bags or old boxes. An added service is to have the shopping carried to your car. This is done willingly but tipping is a good idea (30/- to even 50/- inflation has been horrendous lately!). On annual trips home I find myself gazing into the middle distance in supermarket check outs, then wake-up, surprised that I must knuckle down and do the packing myself, then get a bit flustered by the chip and pin machine and never know which way to put in my card. It’s all a bit pathetic really.
2. Which leads me onto my next point. Don’t expect you credit/debit card to always work in East Africa. Often the card won’t run at the supermarket or in cash machines due to regular comms (communication) failures. I used to get in a panic and think that a card not running through straight away meant ‘insufficient funds’ but am a lot more laid back now. For anyone feeling desperate, it is always worth trying a different ATM. I know that Barclays usually works for UK visitors if all else fails. The cash machines can also be out of service due to the same comms reason. Cheques can be used in shops where the owners agree, just write your contact phone numbers on the back. Please note; if shopping in a hurry, do pay with cash because using a card could delay you at least ten minutes! Alternatively, I have had the same amount debited four times consecutively at one petrol station when they struggled with the machine.
In fact, if you can help it, don’t ever be in a hurry around here. It’s not worth the stress, plus you will look like a foolish fish out of water! Haraka, haraka heina baraka.
3. Friendly service is common, chatting over a shop counter usual, smiling – always. There is always time spared to strike up a conversation and share a chuckle at the shops especially with shop staff. Shopping can be fun with lots of human contact.
4. At ATM machines there is a uniformed guard who kindly moonlights as a cash machine technician. For those people who are unused to cash machines, new to bank accounts etc, askari’s will insert your card for you and even punch in your number if you wish. This is not as silly as it sounds. ATMs here are used to transfer money to mobile phones and even pay bills. It is very complicated. Again – fabulous additional service if there is anything you don't understand!
5. In East Africa, there is no shame in staring. This is less common in busy capitals like Nairobi but do prepare to be overtly stared at from time to time and take it in good humour. Stare back if you like! This is a world away from the unfriendly streets of London, or UK tube and train etiquette where any eye contact at all is highly unusual and sometimes even considered dangerous.
6. Don’t expect to get everything that is on your list when you go shopping. I hate lists, so it’s not really a problem for me – but you’ll find shop stocks vary wildly according to supply (sometimes ‘supply’ means waiting for a container to clear in Mombasa). Don’t plan for a dinner/lunch party before shopping – see what looks nice and what is available first. If you see something you love, treat it like gold dust and sweep up as much as you can as it may be six months before you see that Colmans yellow mustard, special nappies or Brownie mix again. I don’t joke! Haven’t been able to get porridge oats or even sugar in Nakumatt for ages!
7. Managing hawkers. The best advice I ever had was to simply say, ‘no thank you’ rather than get upset by persistent hawkers waving pirate cds, knife sets, nuts and bags of fruit or flowers in my face. In Tanzania I was told to say ‘Sitaki asante (no thank you)’ but was since told by a hawker in Kenya to add, ‘labda kesho (maybe tomorrow)’ which he said made him feel much better. At the same time, don’t feel compelled to buy anything you don't want and be aware of hawkers charging higher prices. Showing even the vaguest interest in the item for sale can be fatal, as the hawkers’ persuasive skills are legendary.
N.b. In Tanzania, hawkers hiss loudly at you – there is no offence meant by this gesture, so don’t take any. They also call out ‘hey sister!’ which is still considered polite, so don’t get upset – at least they are not saying ‘hey mother!’
8. School children holding up sponsorship forms is one challenge that I have yet to fathom. I often give a little money but have no idea if this is a good idea. (Readers’ advice welcome!) There are always food donation boxes in supermarkets, so regularly buying an extra bag of flour, rice or sugar may be a better idea than handing out cash to strangers.
9. The same goes for hawkers holding up live baby rabbits or puppies on road verges. We had tears from my 6 year old daughter for the whole journey home last Sunday, because I wouldn’t let her borrow my money to buy a baby rabbit. (She intended to pay me back from her piggy bank). I did hear of one brave lady who, in Mombasa, pretended she was interested in buying tropical birds, then just before handing over the money, released them all into the air. I think she is still alive to tell the tale.
10. In petrol stations, fuel will be put into your car for you. Just state how much you want put in in terms of money (ie. 1,000 shillings please) or say ‘fill her up’ ‘jaza tafhadali!’ If paying by card, don’t worry about the man disappearing off to take your card off into his office. He will reappear eventually – but as warned above, it might be worth checking that the card machine is working before starting the process as you don't want to find yourself in a fix.
11. This is a bonus tip for shoppers – everything can be fixed, kettles, shoes, chainsaws, cd players, dvd machines, it’s incredible. You will always find somebody very clever to put things back together in little electronic shops, or just ask a hawker to point you in the right direction to find the right fundi.
The ‘disposable’ culture is alien here so don’t throw things away – do recycle – you will never have a problem finding homes for things as long as you are giving them away for nothing! In additin, I wash out cooking oil, milk containers, tin cans, then put them in a separate plastic bag on rubbish collection day which saves the people who are always collecting these items on the road, from getting too dirty when sifting through the bins. My trip to visit a school in Kibera enlightened me on this one.