Hunting and Gathering the Goods: Shopping in Lilongwe

*Caveat: This is how I, a U.S. diplomat, obtain foodstuffs and household goods in Lilongwe.  I am also including photos so people outside of Malawi have a more realistic *picture* of what things are like here.  Before I came to Malawi I looked all over the Internet to find photos of a Malawian supermarket without luck.  For reasons I cannot clearly articulate, grocery availability and presentation worried me, though I had not been concerned when moving anywhere else.  While shopping can be quite exhausting in Lilongwe (I know many who outsource it to staff or hand it off to their very kind spouse because it just makes them too crazy to do it themselves), especially if one makes the mistake of trying to get one’s shopping down on the last Friday or Saturday – pay day – of the month.  But its a part of the experience, something I prefer to do myself.  And its not half bad.

chipiku fixed license plates

Old Chipiku

I will not lie, I miss the convenience of shopping in Shanghai.  Shopping in Lilongwe is….different.  It takes so much more time and work to get the groceries here.   In Shanghai, we had supermarkets downstairs from our apartment, across the street, downstairs from the office, and a few blocks away.  All within easy walking distance.

In my intro to Lilongwe I tried to explain how the capital is laid out.  I live in Area 10, located in the newer part of town, the “City Centre,” although one would be hard pressed to truly locate a center of this sprawling, low-lying city.  There are a few supermarkets on this side of town, a People’s located in Area 12, a Sana in Area 43, another People’s in City Centre, but these are smaller stores and the few times I have been the selection has left me wanting.  With the exception of the Kapani supermarket located on the M1 as you head from town to the airport, I do not shop on my side of town.

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C is happy to visit Gateway – Lilongwe’s only mall

Although on a good, no-to-light, traffic day, it does not take long to get to my favorite supermarket, Old Chipiku, maybe 20 minutes?  (It is not actually named Old Chipiku, just Chipiku, but we Lilongweans call it that so that we distinguish between the more established Chipiku on Paul Kagame Road from the newer Chipiku located in the Game complex, i.e. “New Chipiku.”)  But traffic in Lilongwe is getting worse and worse — with some 500 new cars entering the Lilongwe road scene daily — the old two lane roads cannot accommodate.  Even in the 16 months I have lived here, I have seen the traffic situation worsen considerably.  I used to head to the supermarket after work because the Embassy is half way there, but these days the traffic is nearly always backed up down Kenyatta Road past the Embassy and I do not have the energy most evenings to face it.  So I do most of my shopping on the weekend.

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Food Lovers definitely knows how to attract the fruit lovers*

Old Chipiku is my most often go-to store, but it does not have everything at any given time.  To really get all of my list, I have to go to more than one store.  Sometimes three or more.  If it is produce I need, I head to Gateway Mall, Lilongwe’s only western-style mall.  Within Gateway there are two supermarkets – Food Lovers and Shoprite.  The former is generally very good for produce.  When stocked it is a thing of beauty.  One can also find some imported items like tahini or special trail mix at inflated prices.  But I can never find everything on my list at Food Lovers so I also head to the Shoprite at the other end of the mall.  Shoprite too gets some imports, but different ones from Food Lovers.  Of course.  I have found shredded cheese (be still my heart) and the french cheese spread Rondele.  Shoprite is also more like a Target, carrying household items like plates and flatware, and they have a toy and holiday section.

But I am wary of meat products in these stores.  Early on I purchased meat products that were off.  Oftentimes “fresh” still means “thawed.”  My Malawian nanny refuses to buy  frozen chicken and instead buys her chickens live and takes them to her mom to kill and pluck.  I generally only head to Kapani, which in addition to having a nicely stocked small grocery store (once again with some imports and products found nowhere else), is a specialty butcher.  Yet even there sometimes the chicken is frozen.  Sigh.

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The Golden Peacock version of the sauce aisle

There are a few other shops I sometimes frequent.  Foodworths is a small Lebanese-Malawian owned supermarket located only five minutes walk from the Embassy along a foot-worn path.  My nanny tells me Foodworths has the best bread in Lilongwe, so I often pop over to grab a loaf between bigger shopping trips.  Foodworths also has some great peppermint licorice tea I have not found elsewhere, and they often have light Cola when other places do not.  There is also the Golden Peacock supermarket, sort of like a Chinese Target, I guess.  When we first moved to Lilongwe, I found comfort in the Golden Peacock.  Its long too-wide aisles filled with random made-in-China stuff and loud piped-in C-pop made me feel nostalgic for Shanghai.  But after a few months as I have found the sheen wore off.  It reminds me of when I first arrived in the Philippines in 1996.  I walked down to a supermarket my first jet lagged night and moved in wonder through a store that seemed much better stocked than I had expected.  Yet, when I went back a few days later to shop, I discovered an entire aisle dedicated to soy sauce and ketchup.  Dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, low salt soy sauce, fishy soy sauce, regular ketchup, spicy ketchup, super hot burn-your-face-off ketchup…anyway you get the point.

Yet these grocery store runs are not the only way I acquire my foodstuffs and household items.  There are also people selling items alongside the main roads, on street corners, and parking lots.  More often than not they are selling fruit, such as my favorite fruit sellers near the Old Chipiku, though there are plenty of other things for sale from handmade brooms and mops, plastic tarps (good for covering small maize fields), large dog collars with chains (I see these all the time–I guess for guard dogs?), birds, puppies and kittens,  pirated CDs, toys, and more.  I buy fruit 99% of the time, though I did buy my daughter a pink soccer ball while sitting in traffic in Old Town one day.

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Roadside fruit sellers

I have a few other Foreign Service tricks up my sleeve in order to get the goodies. One is that Malawi is designated a consumables post, meaning an officer can ship up to 2,500 pounds of foodstuffs and other household goods that you generally use up (i.e. consume).  During our summer in the US, I purchased a whole lot of qualifying items but in the end my supplemental HHE (household effects) shipment was only about 700 pounds, so my intended consumables were wrapped up and shipped with them.  Therefore, I still had 2,500 consumables I could ship before reaching a year in Malawi.  I then had three options: give up on my consumables, fly back to the US at some point within the first year and spend time shopping for a bunch of stuff to have shipped back. or order from the European Logistical Support Office (ELSO) in Antwerp.  I went with the last.  I poured over their massive spreadsheet of items available, made my selections, and then ordered.  Seemed straightforward, though similar to what I happened when I purchased a car from Japan to ship to Malawi, I ran into credit card issues.  I had emailed my purchase spreadsheet to Antwerp, they then sent the request to the PX at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  They tried to run my credit card, and surprise, surprise I ran into issues.  An American living in Malawi who is ordering groceries from Germany via Antwerp…  The credit card company blocked the charge.  I called and explained the situation.  Ramstein tried to run it the next day.  The credit card company blocked it again.  I called the company again.  FOUR TIMES they blocked it.  Sigh.

Of course I also order from Amazon.  I probably order something from the retail giant two to three times a week.  There is no Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) box for Malawi, so our mail goes through the State Department pouch.  Both the DPO and pouch have liquid restrictions, though for the latter it is more limited.  To help us in desperate need of certain beverages, about three times a year we are able to order wine, beer, and sodas from South Africa.  I do not drink alcohol but I have a strong (though totally healthy) addiction to Diet Coke.  Malawi has a Coca Cola bottling plant, but the emphasis is on “bottle” and I prefer cans.  Every so often Coke Light (the preferred name for Diet Coke outside of the US of A) cans can be found in Lilongwe stores, but if one does not act fast and stock up appropriately, then supplies dwindle.  And things get ugly.  The Embassy Diet Coke support group (not really a real thing, well, kinda) pounces into action, keeping those with the need informed of supermarket sightings.  The Special South African Beverage Order (SSABO) (I just made that up) can keep us poor slobs stocked during the lean Lilongwe times.

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Lilongwe Farmer’s Market

There is also the once monthly Lilongwe Farmer’s Market, held on the last Saturday of the month, which provides a venue for enterprising Malawians and expats to sell their wares.  Sure there are paintings and jewelry and items made from the local Chitenje fabric, but there are also people selling homemade salsa, ice cream, sticky buns, and organic eggs, grain-fed poultry and other meat, baked goods, Indian breads, and homegrown farm produce.

At the end of the day, there are a good number of shopping options in Lilongwe, more and better than I expected.  It just might take several hours and several stops to get what I want, and more often than I like come back without a good number of things on the list.  Yet there are few food items from the US that I miss, which I cannot get here somehow.

* My photos at Food Lovers had to be taken on the sly as just as what happened in Shanghai, I was told not to take photos.  What is it about people not being allowed to take photos in supermarkets?
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