One of the things you notice early on about Malawi is that quite a lot of people are engaged in the business of selling things. Some arrange their wares on a cardboard box or a bit of plastic sheeting by the road; some roam the downtown sidewalks; some stand in traffic at intersections. In the countryside the road through small towns is lined with little sheds constructed of reeds or sticks, whose rickety counters display carefully stacked cairns of tomatoes, piles of tiny silvery dried fish, or pieces of goat meat. At the little open-air Malawian diner we sometimes eat at in Lilongwe, vendors wander through with armfuls of shoes or sport coats, or the ubiquitous little cards for cell phone airtime. (The restaurants that cater to expats and rich folk keep the vendors out.) When you stop at a gas station you might be offered shoes, MP3 cables, windshield wiper blades, books (a textbook on Modern Chemistry, anyone?), CDs, sunglasses, various charging cords, apples, mangoes, cassava (snacked on raw, but not recommended that way by your humble correspondent).
We often have vendors coming to our door in Bunda with tomatoes, onions, greens, okra, or sometimes whole dead fish. We've seen door-to-door bra salesmen, a backpack salesman with an unbelievable number of bags hanging from him, guys with big racks on their bikes to display their wares of gourds, loofah sponges, little brooms, or even rows of clothes on hangers.
There are some guys at certain intersections in Lilongwe selling the kind of posters you'd expect to see in a classroom: maps of the world, parts of the body labeled in English, labeled pictures of fruits and vegetables. We are guessing some charitable group was appalled at the lack of supplies in public schools here and tried to help out, and this is what became of their donations. At other places along roads and sidewalks in town you can buy everything from laundry soap to roasted peanuts to passports from the south-central African country of your choice.
The kids' favorite vendors to spot are the guys who stand beside the roads holding up puppies or kittens for sale. It always looks to us like the kitten sellers must go home with pretty scratched-up arms at the end of the day!
Some of these salesmen take "no" for an answer and keep moving. Others, however, are not so easily deterred. You'd think that the guy selling sunglasses might have been a little discouraged by the fact that I was wearing sunglasses at the time! I had a fruit vendor follow me into the produce department of a supermarket once - without his wares, but he came up to me while I was in the produce department and tried to convince to go outside and buy his fruit. By far the most persistent vendors we've encountered have been the strawberry vendors. I was very surprised but it seems there are strawberry fields in some parts of Malawi. Strawberry season seems to be over now, but while it lasted we were awed by the determination of the vendors. They called to us, followed us, tried desperately to persuade us, ran after the car a couple of times. Joel decided that the next reality TV show should pit two strawberry vendors in an arena for the ultimate sell-down. They became such a family joke that once I said, "OK, I'll buy your strawberries - if I can take a picture first." They were good strawberries after all, if a bit pricey.
When we buy from vendors we are often a bit suspicious that we are getting the mzungu (white person) price. Sometimes we're more than a bit suspicious. Before the rainy season started we were warned that tomatoes would become scarcer and more expensive once the rain started, so I told Emily, who washes for us, that I'd like to buy a lot of tomatoes to put in the freezer. She said she would find some. When she came with a HUGE load of tomatoes on her head, she told me about buying them: The vendor said 2000 kwacha, then asked Emily why she was buying so many tomatoes. Emily told her, and the vendor immediately said, "Oh, for them it will cost 2800 kwacha." Emily became very indignant retelling this story; she told the vendor "2000 kwacha is what you said first, take it or leave it." So the price was 2000 kwacha in the end, but it confirmed what we already suspected about our "special treatment" in the informal economy.
Eric had a direct run-in with the informal economy when he wanted to buy a different pair of running shoes. He couldn't find anything large enough in any of the stores, so he was advised to go to the open market. I went along for the fun of it, wandering around and looking at things while he got down to business. All the shoe sellers are in one part of the market; each has a few dozen pairs of shoes at most, some new, some used. They keep the dust off their products with little whisks made from unraveled fertilizer sacks. I could tell during my wanderings that he still hadn't sealed a deal, because I kept seeing guys carrying very large shoes jogging toward where I had left him. Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I went back, to find him surrounded by no fewer than 14 vendors each determined that he buy their shoes.
Eric: In their eagerness to sell me their shoes, the vendors were willing to be very approximate about size. I told them I needed size 12 shoes, but at least half of the shoes they brought were size 11. One of the guys would hand me a shoe, I'd look at it and say "this is size 11, not 12", and they would proceed to remove the insole and say "now it will fit you well". I tried on several pairs of shoes that would have been painful to run in, but each vendor in turn insisted that that shoe must fit me.
He finally found some that worked but had very little success in the bargaining stage. (Even having seen a thrift-store price tag on $9.95 in one of the shoes, he ended up paying way more than 5 times that). One of our friends asked outright what he'd paid and was shocked - it was probably four or five times what a Malawian would have gotten them for. This friend said vendors are pretty aggressive even toward Malawians; it's not just us. He talked about getting onto minibuses and having drivers of other buses shouting at him: "No, get on this one! This one is better! This one is faster! This one is leaving right now!"