Target, Cub Foods, or Trader Joe’s used to be my go-to grocery shopping stops. One massive building, carts with wheels that rolled, anonymous self-checkout, or cashiers I never knew by name.
Then I moved to Djibouti, a small country in east Africa. Everything about life turned upside down except a few universal necessities. Like the need to feed my family. But while the need remained the same, many aspects of meeting that need changed. It took some time to adjust but I have come to enjoy and appreciate shopping in Africa. Here are 11 ways grocery shopping in Djibouti is totally different:
1. Your MasterCard is rarely accepted here … nor is your Visa, AmEx, or any credit card at all
In Djibouti, only one local store accepts credit cards, but even then the machine doesn’t consistently work. Just in case, I always have a stack of bills on hand. The first thing to do when shopping is to obtain Djiboutian franc. Women sit on corners downtown and hold burlap sacks on their laps. The sacks are filled with various currency: Euros, Ethiopian biir, Kenyan shillings, US dollars, and Djiboutian franc. Wind down the window, hand over the amount you would like exchanged, and specify which currency you need.
2. There’s no such thing as a Costco
Cash in hand, you’re off to your shopping adventure. And I do mean adventure — many stops are involved. There are four main grocery venues: the market, produce vendors on side streets, grocery stores, and delivery. On a day when I have an especially long list I could easily spend an entire morning utilizing all four options.
3. You only buy exactly what you need …
The market is an excellent source for spices or grains, which I then take to be ground into flour. These are sold out of sacks as tall as a toddler and the vendors use empty tuna fish or tomato paste cans to measure into plastic bags. They always add an extra handful for free. I can order by the kilo or by the monetary amount desired. The market (and small shops along the road) are also excellent places to buy not in bulk. If I want one crème biscuit, but don’t want to buy the whole package, the vendor simply opens the package and sells me a single cookie. Or pulls one from an already-opened package. There’s no pressure or reason to buy more than I need to.
4. The climate plays an active role in when and how you shop
Djibouti is hot and humid, and especially in the summer months, this affects produce and meat. Lettuce wilts, carrots turn limp, meat needs to be purchased early in the day. This means I either have to shop several times a week or that I need to go to the grocery stores where the produce may be fresher. And more expensive.
5. The grocery store is only good for some products.
The few indoor grocery stores that exist are mostly where I purchase cereal, milk (long-life UHT milk that does not need to be refrigerated until opened), chicken, cheese, flour (if I want it bug-free), and sugar (often hard as a rock), paper and cleaning products, and frozen vegetables (especially green veggies, which are hard to find in the market).
6. And even then, the choices are very limited
Although year after year my options increase, there are things I can never find in Djibouti. Brown sugar. Garlic salt. Syrup. Chocolate chips. Salad dressings. Peanut butter that isn’t obscenely expensive. Cereal that isn’t corn flakes or some variety of chocolate. I can’t always be sure of what I’ll find on the shelf. Brands change seemingly at random. There might be no yogurt or eggs for weeks at a time.
7. The freezer section is barely bigger than the one in your kitchen
This is the full extent of the freezer and refrigerated section of a major store. Sometimes chicken disappears for no apparent reason. This has led me toward the tendency to hoard and over-purchase. When I see shredded mozzarella I might buy two huge bags and call a friend to let her know its there.
8. You actually get to know the person behind the counter
The benefit of only having a few options is the ease of making choices and the small-town, relational aspect of getting to know vendors.
9. They’re big fans of the ice cream truck method
Some food items are carted neighborhood to neighborhood. Bread men load baguettes from the backs of pick-up trucks into green carts and push them through the streets multiple times a day, honking a bicycle horn to announce their arrival.
10. Sometimes, you don’t even need to leave your car
If I get home and realize I forgot tomatoes or garlic, there are also produce vendors every few blocks. If I don’t want to, I don’t need to even get out of my car. I can pull up and make an order, like at an American fast food restaurant.
11. You’re getting the very best, because the people are the very best
The vendor gathers the best-looking mangoes or cucumbers, weighs them, and passes them through the car window. Often at my regular stops, the men will throw in a few oranges or bananas for free, especially when I have my kids along.
I might have limited options and have to dedicate a couple hours a week simply trying to gather the goods to feed my family, but grocery shopping in Djibouti is not the hassle I first thought it would be 12 years ago. I like the ease of making choices, the freshness of our food, and the relationships. The cashier asks about my kids by name, the stall vendor knows what I want before I can say “two kilos of bananas.”
Sure, I wouldn’t turn down a Sam’s Club-sized jar of Skippy peanut butter once in a while, but one of the best things of grocery shopping in east Africa has been learning to let go of demanding my needs be met in my preferred way. Hakuna Matata. Let’s eat.