Finding the Informal Economy

Our first visit to the commercial district of our town was a disappointment. Most businesses were padlocked shut, their closed doors reminding us of the dying Main Streets littered across rural Indiana. The scant handful of open stores weren’t selling anything we wanted, just dried anchovies, baskets of fly-covered flour, and household supplies like soap or twine. There were no eggs. No bread. No produce beyond a few stunted pineapples dwarfed by the woven tray they sat in.

We knew other towns had far more to offer. Our first week at our new home, we had hiked to the neighboring village.   We bought margarine. Fresh milk. Chapati. We marveled at market stalls bursting with red tomatoes and green avocados. Why didn’t our village offer the same?

Our medical manual promised we’d love the fresh foods afforded by our new life in rural Tanzania. We scoffed. Volunteers in bigger villages might enjoy weekly farmer’s markets or free range eggs, but our village had nothing but corn.

We were wrong.

We just didn’t know where to look.

When our cat needed flea medicine, we hiked to one of the nearby towns with a bustling market district. They had high-toxicity poison for killing pests on cattle and didn’t understand why we wouldn’t buy it for our 4-pound kitten. Dejected, we shared our failure with Patrick, the Master Farmer in our village. He laughed. “Tanzanian cats and dogs are not well cared for. Cows, though… we want to milk them.” He promised to get us what we needed. The next day, he showed up at our house with a bottle of flea medicine, explaining he’d had the bus driver pick it up in Njombe. He wouldn’t let us pay for it.

We mentioned to our neighbor Mama Aisha that we were looking for somewhere to buy milk. “No problem,” she said. “How much do you want?”  She knew the milk lady and would give her a call with our order. Now we get a liter of fresh milk delivered to our door every other day for 1,000 TSh or 50 cents.

We asked another neighbor, Mwalimu (Teacher) Starra, if she knew where we could buy avocados. What a silly question. We didn’t need to buy them. She’d have students climb the grove by the school and bring us a bucketful.

We asked for one avocado. 
When we ran out of eggs, we mentioned to Mwalimu Stella that we didn’t know where we could buy more in the village. “Sorry,” she explained, “we don’t have eggs now because there’s no rain and the chickens aren’t laying.” But not to worry – her husband teaches in another town, and a woman there sells eggs. They would cost 20 cents each instead of the 15 cents we would pay in our banking town. Was that okay?

Mama Kyando makes the most delicious bread we’ve ever tasted. Its crisp edges and hearty taste are better than anything you’ll ever find in a store. When Christina was sick and needed simple food for her roiling stomach, Mama Kyando visited her twice in one day. The second time, she brought a fresh loaf of bread, cut into thick slices that begged to buttered and eaten.

At first, we thought our new home had nothing to offer compared to neighboring villages. Beyond the shuttered stores and never-ending fields of corn, there was something as invisible as the free market but far more powerful: a community.



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