Arts and crafts in Tanzania: painting, jewels and markets.

Are you souvenir collectors? I am not. I don’t dislike them but I live in a very small house and I don’t have much room to allocate to souvenirs from the 132 countries I’ve travelled to so far. During my trips I do usually buy items that I can actually use once back at my home or I can see every day to spare a thought for an old travel rather than objects that I have to place in a hidden corner of my house to let cover in dust and forget about.

The second reason why I am not very fond of souvenirs is that I do not like to overpay for items whose real cost is far below what I am asked to pay, both for the quality and the workforce required to make it. Honestly, most of the souvenirs you find around the world are not made in the Country you visit (there obviously are some exceptions) and are the result of massive industrial productions, found the same at souvenir shops around the globe. I don’t like them: when I buy something it must be locally made and unique and especially I must be able to use it or see it, such as a painting or a carpet or some fabric to make home-decorations such as pillows for my sofa and so on.

Tanzania is no exception to this.

Paintings are very common in Tanzania. Digitalization from real painting

Most of the souvenirs you find in Tanzania are imported from Countries where massive industrial production is the core business, such as China and India, so that very few are the occasions to find items you really want to buy.

There is a plethora of little markets (they call them Maasai markets) such as the one in Arusha, where you can find exactly the same items at every kiosk, sold for the same price, thus meaning there is an agreement among the sellers to publish the same price. You can negotiate a bit but you won’t get to a reasonable and sustainable price very easily. On the other hand, other kiosks sell locally made items such as woodworks or paintings. Bargaining is a must, being the price required pretty often out of control.

Although tourists and travellers are felt everywhere as an important source of income, in Tanzania there is a common misconception that all tourists are wealthy and roam around with plenty of cash to pay any price. There is only one method to avoid this: your personal Guide. If your guide is well inserted in the local tourism mechanism and wants to get his share out of the price you pay, there is no way for you to escape a very small bargain. On the other side, if your Guide is a serious professional (well conscious that a good tip might be more rewarding for him than a small commission on your purchase), you should speak to him clearly to let him understand that you only want to see local stuff and might be happier to visit an artist, a wood worker or a jewel maker at its own workshop rather than visit useless markets where you only find made in China stuff.

Plastic pearls baskets are also very common in Tanzania

The issue is that finding a serious and professional Guide is not easy. Most of them (as well as most of the local tour operators) do not understand that travellers might have saved money for long before allowing themselves a holiday abroad and, despite the fact that we might like to buy something to bring back home, we won’t buy at any cost.

I might recommend you a very good local Guide called Humphrey Mrosso, who also is passionate wildlife photographer making your safari very interesting as he also want to see stuff.

The best selling item at Tanzania’s souvenir shops and markets are the paintings. You’ll see paintings everywhere: at the hotel, at curio shops at your lodge, at markets, along the streets, in the middle of nowhere…Such painting are pretty much looking the same, as if the painter made million copies of the same subject, in different sizes. 9 times out of 10 the subject is the Maasai tribe while the rest is wildlife. Being very colourful such paintings catch your sight from a distance, but when you get closer, you understand that most of them are not hand-made, not local and the price is beyond control. I managed to buy a nice painting directly at the workshop of an artist and I’ve been asked a reasonable and sustainable price. If you like one, ask your Guide to take you to the workshop of the painter.

Maasai painting. Digitalization from real painting.

The population of mainland Tanzania is made of 120 tribes, the most popular of which is the Maasai. Beside being breeders, these tribe is also famous for their way of living, being the only tribe who still live in the bush, inside circle-shaped villages with mud-built houses with the fence for cows in the middle. Women of the Maasai tribe wear a lot of hand-made costume-jewelry such as bracelets and necklaces.

Some Masaii villages are unfortunately not authentic anymore as they also “smelled” that tourists could be an income for them. They attract you with the excuse of seeing their village, letting you know more about their culture and so on. You are asked to give them a “spontaneous” offer for the community (which can be very high. It’s not actually an offer but an admission fee), then another offer for the village school and, in the end, they place a small market around the cow fence and display their items on sale, most of which is costume-jewelry. Prices here are simply mad, unreasonable and unsustainable: if, at the start of you visit, you felt you might give them some help, when you get to the market you feel it was just a tourist trap and you want to leave the place as soon as possible.

Fabric bracelets at the Maasai Market

However, you can find Maasai style costume jewelry for good prices and of a very good quality at Sable Square, just outside Arusha, close to the airport. Inside the compound there is a little shop run by an association called Maasai Women Art. Such group of women received the support of an Italian NGO whose staff taught them how to create costume jewels in a very fashionable way by keeping their traditional technique and abilities intact.

Jewels at Masaii Women Art in Sable Square – Arusha

All the above in a nutshell: Africa is an incredible Continent and Tanzania is among the most beautiful Countries to visit. However, before opening your wallet and pay for anything, always check for alternatives.

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