Last Sunday, I and my new housemate J moved into our new house. It’s not a new house, but it is new to the organization. So, while the house is furnished-beds, chairs, tables, stove and fridge- there are many things that are lacking. Since it is considered group housing, the organization will pay for common furnishings- pots and pans, shower curtains, etc. This also means that there is an entire purchasing process to go through. We can’t just run out to Target and be done.
As I do want to enjoy these extra furnishings, I’ve inserted myself in the process of buying them-otherwise it would be left up to the men in the purchasing/logistics department. Not that they couldn’t do it, but frankly, when it comes to quality and color coordination I need to be involved!
Day 1: The whole process started with me making a list in English of items and checking it twice with J. Then I wrote out a requisition form listing the items in French for the admin/purchasing guy. The list had to be verified and signed by the head of office.
Day 2: I went with the driver and another random office guy (he works in water and sanitation, but I’m not really sure what he does except that today he is helping me shop) to price items and find quotes. We all hopped into a Hilux pick-up and headed toward the commercial center of town. When I say commercial center, you need to picture dark dirt, pot-holed roads with volcanic rock laying here and there (we’re only 8 miles from an active volcano!) and small shops made of concrete with single open doors lining the streets. Merchandise spilled out of the stores giving one a good idea of what one might find inside. Most stores seemed to be a hodgepodge, but could be loosely grouped into a few categories- apparel, housewares, hardware.
At store #1, which looked more like a hardware store, they had one item that we needed out of a list of 50. Next!
At store #2, they had 10 or so items. This store was like walking into the poorly organized, dusty garage of your great uncle who happened to be a hoarder. It too leaned toward the hardware category with pipes, toilets, brooms, boxes of water filters and display cases packed with assorted electrical doohickeys all dumped together. A dozen light fixtures for sale hung from the ceiling and walls, most memorably a chandelier with chartreuse glass bowls around the bulbs and another that looked like a foot-long pink log.
Store #3 was more about home furnishings. If rummage sales and my grandmother’s attic could cross-breed, this store would be the result. The entire store was approximately 15x25 feet, but stacked from floor to ceiling with just a narrow walkway to the back. There were women’s high heels, glass end tables, office chairs, gaudy framed art, coffee makers, jewelry, strollers, water coolers, dishes, pots and pans and a meat grinder exactly like the one my mother used to use. Not a price tag in sight.
Instead, we played a game of pointing, asking and pricing. There were a few items that were reasonably priced, but for the most part I was in price shock!
Me: How much is this? (iron)
Shopkeeper: Um, that’s $65.
Me: How much is this? (coffee maker)
Me: How much is this oversized leather chair (just for kicks?)?
Shopkeeker: That’s $2,000
As we were leaving the shopkeeper asked if we’d be back to buy and I told him we were comparing prices and wherever had the lowest price is where we would buy. Amazingly, prices dropped after that.
Store #4 finally had a stove. (The countertop electric oven and hotplate combo that came with the house is taking 30 minutes to toast bread....). Despite being a small oven and of mixed energy use -three gas burners, one electric burner and an electric oven (who’s ever heard of such a thing??)- the price tag was $750. Ouch. I think I repeated the price back to the store clerk 5 times and the price didn’t get any lower. Thankfully, when I went to the grocery store later on, they had a gas stove/oven for a much more reasonable $370. The only downside is that we have to cross the border and buy the tanks of gas in Rwanda.
In store #5, I felt like I hit the jackpot. It was all cutlery and cooking. My helper and I walked in and behind the counter and stacked all along the walls were oodles of pots and pans, serving utensils, bowls, plates and almost all the kitchen tools one could want. After seeing a lot of overpriced electric coffee makers, my big find of the day was a French Press. I asked and they actually had one for just $15.
Now that the list of items is all priced, the list had to go back to the admin guy to do a price comparison.
Day 3: Oops, we need to get a proforma from all the vendors! Going back to each store, each vendor had to write the price for each item on their business letterhead. Back at the office, I gave the administrator the proformas. He called me into his office at the end of the day and told me that we needed to find one store with all of the items. He's Congolese so he knows there isn't one store with all of the items on the list. I gave him a blank stare and told him exactly that. He said he'd have to do a comparison between the proformas and wanted to know which items I wanted. To make things a bit easier I volunteered to make an Excel table and circled the item from that I wanted to buy.
Day 4: I was given a check advance for the items. Off to the bank to get cash -- $1,000 in twenties and back to the stores to actually purchase the items.
Now, J and I can actually set up house! We have a stove and dishes and bath mats and hangars-- we just have to wash layers of dust off of everything first!