Tanzanian shopping safari

My flight from Amsterdam to Arusha seemed endless. Row after row of tourists kitted out in their finest khaki spent much of the nine hours thumbing through guidebooks, gossiping about their travel guides, and plotting their upcoming adventures around Mount Kilimanjaro and across the Great Rift Valley. My frustration was probably due to jealousy: this trip to Tanzania was pure business for me, and the only landmark I would visit during my 48-hour stay would be the Arusha International Conference Centre, to discuss ways to improve co-operation across business and government sectors.

In other words, my retail exploration opportunities would be limited to either the hotel lobby shops or roadside discoveries while commuting to and from the conference centre. Neither seemed particularly satisfying. On the way in from the airport I explained the situation to my driver, who immediately suggested the best place to shop in the whole city and even offered to take me there during the lunch break. I was thrilled. That is, until we arrived – at Meat King, aka the city’s (and maybe country’s) best meat shop. Still, since we were there I decided to browse the selection, amazed by the variety of sausages. Arriving at the car empty-handed, I shrugged and smiled, and before I could utter a word my driver said, “Let me call my wife. She will know.”

She did, and even drew up a map complete with insider advice regarding each outlet she suggested. First stop was Everwear, a square grey room on Sokoine Road packed with T-shirts, bumper stickers and rucksacks to meet all budgets and tastes. I was a little disappointed to see an “Original Maasai Shuka” (made in China) for $30, but was glad to discover a very good selection of interesting beaded shirts in a range of sizes, from which I bought a $15 off-white tee with a hand-beaded map of Africa embroidered on the front. The glimmering black beads outlining the continent make it a perfect match for my new perforated leather pants.

Next stop was the Maasai Market, which is made up of about 100 local vendors hawking their wares. Each of the shops has similar items and prices for art, jewellery, carvings and clothing, and after a few minutes it’s hard to tell them apart. Shopping was heart-wrenching because of the similarity of the products and aggressive nature of the vendors trying to explain why theirs was “better” than the exact item 3ft away, and in the end I left empty-handed and exhausted.

That evening, after participating in a few panels on improving transparency and the myths about growth in Africa, I ventured to Shoprite, the local grocery store, for some staple items, only to discover the safari travellers had already cleaned it out. Fortunately, a few steps away was TFA Centre, chock full of promising small shops. They had closed for the night, but I when I returned the next day it was even better than I remembered.

Tanzania Maasai Women Art (www.tanzaniamaasaiwomenart.com) was started by an Italian non-profit organisation but is today locally owned and managed. They have somehow managed to integrate European design into some of their Maasai beadwork, which makes it surprisingly wearable, and I bought several neutral-coloured beaded bib and statement necklaces as gifts, each about $35. (They even have an online catalogue.) Right next door is Shanga (www.shanga.org), which has a very welcoming outdoor display of baby clothes and colourful housewares. Inside there is a much wider selection of womenswear, most of it fashioned from the traditional Swahili length of fabric called a kanga. Sundresses and pantsuits in bright colours ranged in price from $20 to $65, and though I had a sizing issue with the clothes, I did find a marigold and black patterned obi belt for $22 that immediately brightened up my plain Stella McCartney pantsuit. At the checkout I then came across a black choker necklace with a silver and black beaded circular pendant that falls comfortably into the décolleté, for $30.

Motherland Creations, in the same centre, contains some ready-to-wear items but is known for being a local couturier that will create just about anything you want using their fabrics and embellishments. As I showed the head tailor my fabric choice – a black and royal blue waxed cotton with orange accents and a swirly pattern – she offered to make me a dress “no man could resist.” How, then, could I?

The tailor calculated the cost and time required – $100 – and then took my shipping information since it would not be ready for a week. When I asked if she needed to measure me she shot me a stern glance and shook her head. Apparently, a momentary scan was enough. For the rest of the afternoon, I dreamt of what might arrive on my doorstep and sat listening to discussions about how to promote growth in Africa. Introducing more tourists to Motherland might not be a bad first step.

The Mystery Shopper is a globetrotting executive who shops as she travels for work

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.