June 14, 2010

Shops in Bots

Yeah, that’s right, “Shops in Bots.”  I stand by that title. As you’ve probably guessed, you’re just going to have to get used to punny, cheesy, pseudo-rhyming blog titles if you’re going to keep reading my blog…which you are, because you love me, and if you don’t, I’ll be sad…or vengeful. Hehe.  At least you don’t have to wear a spelunking light if you have to pee after 6pm, so don’t gripe too much. :oP

Anyway, I still really want to write about my village, my house, and my NGO, but there is just so, so much that I want to say, I’m trying to collect my thoughts.  But for the purposes of a status update, just FYI, I am now an OFFICIAL Peace Corps Volunteer (I’ll write about swearing in/the conclusion of PST later—same as thoughts about my village—too much to describe at the moment!), moved to my site on Friday/Saturday (it’s a two-day trip from Moleps and Gabs), and will start work tomorrow (it’s Sunday the 13th as I’m writing this). 

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to make mental notes of all of the things that struck me when I first arrived but were too numerous to process, let alone write about at the time, so that I can write about them now, while I’m still somewhat “fresh” in Bots.  It’s really amazing how quickly you become accustomed to all of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences (although it does not FEEL as though it is happening quickly—again with the PC timewarp!), and there’s still so much that I want to make note of!  So, today’s topic is shopping!  (Because I just LOVE shopping SO much—haha!)

Prior to arriving in Botswana, I imagined the primary food sources would be open-air markets with locally-grown produce and freshly-made food; I envisioned other locally-made goods sold in small craft and shop booths or shanty stores.  Why I imagined this would be the case, I don’t know—perhaps one too many National Geographic’s—but I could not have been more off-target if I tried. 

Now, I cannot speak to the situation in extremely small villages, as I have only spent time in or passed through large or mid-sized villages (my site, Shakawe, is small-to-mid-sized, with a population of about 5,000, but it is on a main road, so it has more amenities than some other villages of its size).  However, I have seen a great portion of the country while traveling to and from my site, so I feel reasonably confident that my reflections are fairly representative. 

The primary sources for food in each of the villages that I have visited or passed though are not farmers markets or locally-owned stores, but large chain stores—Choppies, (Super) Spar, Shoprite, and SupaSave, to name a few.  They stand out amongst the local architecture about as much as I stand out among a crowd of Batswana—they look just like grocery stores in the states, except that they suddenly emerge out of mazes of dirt roads, or a single tarred road, surrounded by rondevals and cement houses; their parking lots are dominated by goats, donkeys, chickens, and packs of stray dogs (there are plenty of cars too, of course, but the animals, dipologolo, seem to have the upper hand…here in Botswana, all the good parking spots are either taken, or occupied by a donkey).  These stores are almost exactly like American grocery stores on the inside as well—full of brand-name packaged and processed products—including food, toiletries, basic household needs, etc.—mostly from South Africa or the United States; all of the labels and pricing information is even written in English.  The biggest differences that I have noticed between grocery stores in America and Botswana is a slightly different product selection and different produce protocol—you must have your produce weighed and a barcode printed while still in the produce section, rather than at the cash register.  Other than that, trips inside the grocery store are somewhat like little mini-mind-cations to the States.

Non-food or household items—clothes, furniture, etc.—are also sold in large chain stores, like PEP, Game, or Mr. Price, FurnMart.  The experience of shopping in these stores is really no difference than shopping at  an Old Navy, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or Target in the states; just slightly different merchandise, catered to local needs.

As surprising as all of that was for me, the real shocker, based on my expectations and knowledge prior to arriving in Bots, has been the China shops (as an American, I cringe every time I refer to them this way, and it feels even more uncomfortable typing it; but this is what they are called here, and the individuals who own the shops are actually Chinese, not just Asian…still feels uncomfortable, though…).  Even more common than the large Target-like stores are shops owned by Chinese immigrants (who stick out as much as I do; Batswana are almost exclusively of African descent), which sell everything from buckets, to stereos and TV’s, to clothes, shoes, and tea kettles—literally just about anything you can think of other than food—at extremely low prices. They are typically in brick or cement buildings, but do not have any frills or decorations inside like a PEP or grocery store.  They’re almost like a Ross or TJ Maxx—you never quite know what you might find, and you sort of feel like you’re on a treasure-hunt when you’re there.  They are everywhere, and there seem to be about 3-5 China shops for every PEP-like store, and they seem to do quite well.

I have yet to encounter any large locally-owned and operated non-chain stores.  Most non-chain, non-China shops are restaurants, butcheries, salons, tailors, car repair shops, and bars.  These are typically in concrete or brick buildings with minimal extra furnishings, scattered throughout neighborhoods, or next to the chain stores and China shops, in strip-mall fashion.

There are also an overwhelming number of individual street vendors everywhere—including in front of China shops and chain stores.  However, the street vendors do not typically sell their own crafts or food.  They are almost exclusively women, sitting behind fold-up card tables, wearing bright aprons advertising various cell phone networks, and they primarily sell pieces of individually-wrapped candy (which they purchased in bulk inside the large chain stores; frequently the same stores that they are stationed in front of), and cell phone airtime (cell phones here are pay-as-you go, and in order to recharge your phone, you must purchase a card with a scratch-off code, sort of like a lottery ticket, and enter that number into your phone; the street vendors sell the cards).  Occasionally, they will have some produce, like oranges (in an unrelated note, good lord, the citrus fruit here is amazing!!!) or homemade fat cakes, but they almost exclusively sell candy and airtime.

In addition to the street vendors, there are occasional hairdressers who have set up shop in impromptu tent-like structures, or people selling home-made metal buckets and tubs on the roadside.  There are places where one can go to purchase locally-made art or other items—co-ops or the Main Mall in Gaborone, for instance—but these seem to be fairly hard to come by, and shopping is done almost exclusively at chain stores and China shops.

The shopping situation here is so far from anything I anticipated, and it was quite disconcerting when I first arrived, but even after only two months, it seems almost natural.  I once again find myself feeling rather limited in my ability to express an opinion in such a public forum, but I hope I at least painted a word-picture for you…amazing how simultaneously different and similar Botswana and America are…

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