Why I shop slowly here

Buying food means nurturing friendships.

"I'm just dashing to the shop!" I trill, grabbing my mother-in-law's pink cloth bag and a ­hastily scribbled shopping list.

"Dashing?" My husband raises an eyebrow. "But you know you can't dash in there."

Shopping in this corner of eastern Zimbabwe has never been a speedy affair, even when there was little on the supermarket shelves: too many people to greet, too much news to exchange, and too many tips to share.

Since I had my daughter a few months back, a "quick shop" takes even longer. Everyone, it seems, wants to know how she is.

"Mai [mother of] Tinashe!" Shop assistant Sekai hugs me when I hit the supermarket dairy aisle, addressing me – as per the local Shona tradition – by the name of my first child. "How is the baby, my sister?"

Sekai – I can still call her by her first name since she is younger than I am, unmarried, and as yet without children – watched me excitedly through every stage of my pregnancy. In the past, she's told me how she supplements her wage by cross-border trading, regularly making the exhausting bus trip to South Africa and back during her weekends off to buy clothes for resale.

"The baby is well," I say. "My husband is looking after her."

"But don't you have a maid?"

"He's good at it," I tell her, selecting a couple of packets of milk (it's sold in sturdy plastic bags here). Last week, a columnist argued passionately in the local Manica Post that baby-watching – or worse still, carrying a baby while shopping – was not an African man's work.


"Sure," I assure her, heading for the bananas and waving.

"How is Tinashe? And the baby?" asks the man in charge of the fresh produce section. He has a well-thumbed New Testament stuffed down the side of his scales.

"They are well," I say, picking a pack of granadillas as I run through my list distractedly. The monkeys have stripped our granadilla creeper bare again. And how many potatoes was it that we needed? "How is your family?"

He tells me that they are well, that the evenings are getting cooler (Zimbabwe is heading into autumn now), that business is good. I stand quietly, watching him bag up a butternut squash.

Hapana greets me by the cookie stand. Her own baby is due soon, I believe – though after a decade here I know better than to offend Shona tradition and ask when exactly she's due. "When are you bringing your baby to see us?" she wants to know.

"Soon," I promise.

Truth be told (and even if I do sound harried), I love this not-to-be-hurried ritual of greetings, the genuine warmth that flashes across these faces when they see me. An expat in a country where whites are sometimes regarded with mistrust as a result both of Zimbabwe's colonial past and the controversial policies of President Robert Mugabe's government, I know that I'm privileged to know these people, to have a tiny window into their lives and they into mine.

It's all so different from shopping in Paris, where I lived in my 20s. Back then I could dive into any number of supermarkets as dusk gathered: Monoprix, Franprix, Ed L'Epicier, Prisunic. I run through these names like worry beads as my 8-year-old listens. He is fascinated by the revelation that his mother once had a life that involved neither him nor his father, in a country a whole continent away.

I never formed any relationships in those French shops. Actually I don't think I once struck up a conversation with a supermarket employee, beyond a brief "Bonsoir."

By the checkout, I bump into Mai S., a senior lecturer at a local college. I ask after her youngest child, boarding at a prestigious school in the mountainous Nyanga District. In the past she worried that Mutunzi was not being fed properly. Boarding school fare was notoriously sparse during Zimbabwe's decade of crisis: often little more than sadza (stiff cornmeal porridge, Zimbabwe's staple), cabbage, and beans, day in, day out. Today Mai S.'s smile is relaxed: Mutunzi is doing well, she tells me.

"This is for you to buy something for the baby," she says, slipping a $5 bill into my hand. I clap my thanks, knowing better than to argue.

This Zimbabwean supermarket does not stock olive oil. The local, brightly colored cheese is worlds away from the goat cheese I once savored. Internet shopping is still a dream here. A quick shopping trip will always take me a minimum of 25 minutes.

But what little I've lost in choice and speed, I've gained – so much more – in community.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.