When shopping for souvenirs and all things Malawian, there are really three options. (1) You can go to a posh gallery in Blantyre or Lilongwe. These lovely galleries stock beautiful, quality pieces and offer a calm, stress-free, clean environment in which to peruse them. The downside is that in the gallery, you will pay five or six times what you would pay at a market. No bargaining here.
Then there is option two (2). Every few days or so, a young, enterprising gentleman, such as Eric, will show up at our door with a backpack full of curios. Usually they bring a few carvings, paintings, and some jewelry. Again, you can look over the items in calm and peace and can find some nice unique pieces. You can also let Eric know if you’re looking for something particular and he will bring examples for you to see. Here also, though, you will probably pay more than in a market – usually two or three times more. You also don’t have as much of a selection. You can bargain a little but you know that these young men are trying to make a living and have been doing it long enough to be clever middle men.
Finally, the third (3) option is to go to a curio market. There is a big one in Lilongwe and one here in Blantyre. You can also find venders and artists selling their wares at the foot of Mt. Mulanje, Zomba mountain, along the lake, and along some of the busier roads.
The market in Lilongwe is in a parking lot and hosts probably thirty or forty venders. You can find everything from animal carvings, to colorful cloth, to musical instruments.
And the venders see you coming a mile away.
Sandy and I visited this market in Lilongwe a few weeks ago. The second we stepped out of the car, we were besieged. Each eager vender verbally pulled us and pushed us and assured us that he would give us a good deal. We walked slowly up and down looking at everything displayed. Each time we came to a new vender, he would pick something up and show it to us, explain how this particular item is the finest in the whole market, and for us – good price – special price.
So once you find something that you really like, or even kind of like, or something that they hold up to you and you thought it was really ugly, but you said it was nice because you didn’t want to hurt their feelings, they start to talk price.
I’ve found that if you’re clearly a tourist the price will be automatically jacked up by oh… around 10,000 percent. And why not? They are businessmen after all. Here’s an example. Sandy bought me a piece of this colorful cloth and paid 1,500 kwatcha. He brought the guy down from 3,000 kwatcha so he was feeling pretty good about it. He later learned from a colleague that it should have been about 500 kwatcha.
While you do have to negotiate and bargain, it’s definitely an acquired skill.
So the markets have their upsides and downsides. The venders can be aggressively pushy, but there is an amazing selection, so you can find some really beautiful things and negotiate good prices. You have to navigate through the tacky kitsch, but there are definitely some talented artists.
Here are some photos of the treasures we’ve collected so far: