THE BLOG

The Shopkeeper's Code

06/30/2015 03:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

Recently, I was in Tanzania with several first time travelers. So, we did the dreaded shopping for souvenirs shopping in Moshi. As in many third world countries, street vendors are aggressive in trying to get your business. In Africa, it is even more obvious that white people really stand out as customers (or "marks" ripe for picking).

Young men come up to us as we are walking along tightly clustered, following our local staff person on our way to the souvenir shop. "Hi, are you from America?" they ask. Mostly, we try to ignore them, but Frank says, "Yes, we are from Iowa." Encouraged, several of these young men move in. "Is this your first trip to Tanzania? Will you climb Kilimanjaro? Are you going on safari?'" Frank is bewildered and tries to answer these questions, but the young men are now pushing magazines, beaded jewelry, carved animals and other items on him.

I take him by the arm and say, "They don't want to get to know you or find out your plans. They just want you to stop walking so they can sell you something." We go into the shop and our newbies are busily examining all the bric- a- brac. The shop is a nine by twelve room and is packed with all sorts of items, some actually made in Tanzania. The street vendors stay outside.

Frank takes a look at some floppy hats and tries one on. He's a big guy, over six feet tall and has a big head. The hat is too small. Besides, he doesn't want a "touristy" one that advertises Kilimanjaro. The shop owner senses a sale and keeps handing Frank other hats to try. All were too small.

Frank steps out of the store to get some air and is immediately accosted by three young men holding hats. He dutifully tries the all on, even those with the dreaded Kilimanjaro label. No good. "Hakuna Matata," says one of the young men. This is a quote from the Disney movie "The Lion King" and it means "No Worries." However, our Tanzanian friends have told us that this is Kenyan Swahili and considered trailer park Swahili. It is never used in Tanzania except in souvenir shops.

Meanwhile two of the boys have returned from other shops with more hats. Apparently, shopkeepers allow these street vendors to act as intermediaries as long as they don't physically enter the shop of a competitor. Once Frank stepped outside the first shop, he was fair game. He tried on another 10 hats and found one that fit and did not have any messages on it. He paid for it to the delight of the street vendor and was wearing it when another of the street vendors ran up panting. He had more hats and said he had been far away to find them.

"Perhaps in Arusha?" I asked naming a city 60 miles away. The other street vendors laughed.

"Hakuna Matata,"I said closing out the transaction as Frank studied himself in the mirror.