Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shop 'Til You Drop

Like driving - and like a lot of things actually - shopping in Conakry is a fairly chaotic activity. In my previous life if I wanted to buy a thingamabob I just asked Google, which gave me a selection of thingamabob purveyors in convenient map form. That doesn't really work here. The most reliable way to find out where to buy a thingamabob is to ask people where they get theirs, especially if you particularly admire the thingamabobs they have. Really, it's best to see if they will take you with them to their thingamaboberie of choice, since chances are you'll never actually find it on your own.

Like my definition of "street", my definition of "store" has altered significantly since my arrival in Guinea. Conakry does have stores like you probably think of stores - four walls, a ceiling, aisles of products, marked prices, checkout lanes, etc. - but those are exceptions rather than the rule. By far the most common form of dedicated retail establishment here is a shipping container. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Guinea imports much larger volumes than it exports, and it's probably cheaper to just dump the containers here than to ship them back to China empty so there's plenty of supply. They're well-made for what they are, and easy to lock securely at night. Conakry's version of a strip mall is a bunch of shipping containers lined up in a row, all selling something different.

The next step down is a stall at one of Conakry's many markets. These range from permanent, lockable installations to a folding table and an umbrella. Supplies vary and so do prices, widely. I'm not much of a haggler so I find the markets pretty intimidating, especially since my blazing whiteness makes it hard to pass unnoticed. On my first weekend my sponsor took me for a little a stroll around the Marché du Niger downtown, just to look, and in the space of two minutes we had accumulated a string of at least ten teenagers wanting to "help" me with my shopping, for a small fee.

And then there's the spontaneous retail sector - people selling mangoes from a table in the front of their house or on the side of the road. Traffic circles, construction sites, any reliable source of traffic congestion attracts a swarm of merchants selling just about anything portable. People think of America as the home of the drive-thru, but it's amazing what you can buy in Conakry without getting out of your car. There's the expected snacks and drinks, but I have also seen bath towels, CDs and DVDs, floor mats and steering wheel covers, mops and brooms, machetes and hedge clippers, maps of Guinea, and mens' pants.

However, except for perishables, I'm also buying things in Guinea the same way I've always bought them - I order them from the internet and have them mailed to my house. Amazon forever.

Side note: I reached 10,000 hits today! Thanks everybody!


  1. Awwwwww! Shopping! Soon it'll be easy, it's just different and you need the lay of the land.
    Great post, so made me laugh!

  2. Please, please, please buy a machete drive-thru style!

  3. I agree with beth!!! -rita