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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: To See Tanzania Shop Local

Fahari Wambura at Fahari Bazaar in Chatham, NY
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
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Fahari Wambura at Fahari Bazaar in Chatham, NY

Shopping local is to be encouraged. It’s obviously harder during a pandemic, especially if you’re a merchant with the likes of Amazon breathing down your neck. But Fahari Wambura seems to be succeeding at Fahari Bazaar. That’s her store on Hudson Avenue in Chatham, NY.<--break->

Dazzling batik dresses made by tailors in her native Tanzania. Woven baskets both large and small. A selection of the most personality-filled Batik facemasks you’re likely to find anywhere.

But the item that most surprised and tempted me – perhaps because it appealed to my sublimated eight-year-old – were the slingshots. Sturdy, serious-looking projectile delivery systems.

“While we watched the cattle we’d hunt the birds and roast them and eat them,” Fahari remembered of her childhood village in the north of Tanzania. It’s near the Kenyan border.

My hunch is that the shop owner was a decent shot. Owning a thriving business selling African merchandize, that’s not even on Chatham’s main street, during a pandemic, while navigating the virtual educations of her two school-age sons would be a challenge for anybody.

Fahari seems to be succeeding through the devotion of loyal customers, a business plan that turns as much on the hard work and the community values of her native Tanzania as on turning a profit, and the secret ingredient that successful people share in all walks of life: having the courage of your convictions and a belief in your own instincts. That if you make or sell or create stuff that engages you and speaks to who you are, that tells a personal story, customers will follow.

“Success to me doesn’t look like just making lots of money,” Fahari said as we talked in the socially distanced chill of late fall outside her store. “It’s about how we can get along and value each other.”

It’s probably her selection of hand printed tote bags, the store’s signature item, and reversible one-of-a-kind bosslady dresses that most distinguishes the shop. Fahari was wearing a hooded reversible one in browns and yellows, sourced from women vendors at the fabric market in Dar es Salaam. But it’s the other stuff that just as much tells Fahari’s own story. For example, the toy trucks from Kenya made of recycled wire and decorated with colorful bottle caps and kibatari, tin can kerosene lamps with floating wicks.

“That’s what we used to use for reading,” Fahari remembered, not recommending customers do the same. The shop owner says it was murder on her eyes while doing her homework growing up.

But the personal stories behind the toys and knick-knacks came later in our conversation. My first question, and I suspect yours, too, was: how did you get here? What’s an authentic African emporium doing in rural upstate New York?

Fahari was working as a journalist, columnist and editor of her newspaper’s weekend magazine in Dar es Salaam when she met her future American husband. He was visiting a childhood friend who also happened to be one of her best friends.

They married, had their first son and moved to New York City, briefly to Brazil, and then Hudson, NY. They settled here after going camping upstate, then visiting a friend of her husband’s who lived in Hudson.

In 2014 both her spouse and her mother-in-law gave Fahari sewing machines. “I took that as a sign,” she said. “I was thinking what I was going to do with my life.”

She kept her mother-in-law’s even though she didn’t touch the appliance for several months. “I didn’t know how to sew,” she said.

But displaying the calm determination that seems to be her hallmark she taught herself how to sew by watching a fifteen-minute YouTube video. The first day she made five tote bags and sold them to the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store in Ghent, NY.

The check she received inspired her to reach out to farmer’s markets, finding a promising one in Woodstock, NY. So on weekends the family would load up their old Honda with merchandize and knapsacks. While Fahari sold her designs her husband and kids would take hikes.

People started asking her whether she could make them dresses using the same vibrant fabrics she used to create the totes. She couldn’t. Or rather she hadn’t yet. “I’d just go figure it out,” she said.

What she also figured out was that there were talented tailors and local artisans, especially women, back in Tanzania who could supply her needs while she was helping to support them. “I am growing in a certain way,” she said. “And they’re growing in a certain way.”

She plans to return to Tanzania this winter, as she does every winter though the pandemic may complicate things. She goes to see her family, escape the cold of the Northeast, workshop new designs with her tailors and artists and travel to rural villages to meet with the women who provide her with items such as those large hand-woven baskets. Used as laundry or toy receptacles or just as pieces of art they’re made in the Iringa highlands region of Tanzania from reed grass that’s dried in the sun.

One of the few items not for sale in the store are the African masks that decorate the walls. “They hang out here and watch over me,” Fahari said. “Their eyes are always open.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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