Tanzania offers a wealth of traditional arts and crafts, and Arusha is one of the best places in the country to shop for these. Unless you're traveling the circuit by road, in which case you will find many excellent roadside stalls, consider setting aside a full day in Arusha at the end of your safari just to browse for souvenirs.
Start by trawling the area between the Clock Tower and India Road, where various curio shops offer a huge variety of goods for sale. They are likely to charge slightly more than the roadside stalls that crop up every few miles if you're traversing the Northern Circuit by road, but if yours is a fly-in safari, you won't find better bargains elsewhere. Note that it's best to visit a number of shops to get a sense of relative worth before haggling.
For atmosphere, you can't beat Arusha's Central Market (between Somali and Sokoine rds.). Most stalls cater to locals, but you will unearth a few gems, including an Indian-owned shop that sells Maasai blankets to the Maasai at half the price you will pay anywhere else. (Heading north toward the market from Sokoine Rd., it's next to the only bicycle shop.) Do be aware that the area is notorious for pickpockets and rip-off artists; try to visit with a local guide/driver, and watch your belongings.
Another worthwhile stop is Trade Routes (Shoprite Shopping Centre, Dodoma Rd.) for high-quality Kenyan goods -- look out for bags by Annabels and other Happy Valley-style products. If you're interested in wood carvings, be sure to visit the Antique Makonde Carvers Workshop on the Nairobi-Moshi Road (just before the exit to the airport), where you can buy directly from the Makonde craftsmen. The Makonde are famed for their wood carving, a talent and skill that is passed from father to son, and it is predominantly their work displayed in curio shops and roadside stalls. Themes vary greatly, but all carvers start off by reproducing images of men and women going about their traditional activities, the most famous being the Ujamaa, or "Tree of Life." The Makonde hail from southern Tanzania, but many have moved to the "tourist mecca" of Arusha to ply their trade.
Having visited these, set aside a few hours (or, if you have time to make only one stop, head straight there) to explore Cultural Heritage Company (Mon-Sat 9:30am-5:30pm, Sun 9am-3pm; tel. 027/250-7496; email@example.com), the largest and best collection of East African arts and crafts in Arusha (if not the country), located on the Dodoma Road that leads westward from Arusha on the Northern Circuit. Currently in a massive thatched structure, the outlet is due to move into the custom-built monstrosity next door -- surely a contender for the most kitsch and extravagant retail outlet on the continent, and proof of just how much money its owner, Mr. Saifuddin Khanbhai, is making. Prices of most items are usually inflated (relative to what you'll pay at many of the roadside stalls, at any rate), but the quality and variety is unbeatable: Makonde and ebony carvings, tanzanite, Tinga Tinga paintings, antique furniture, stone sculptures, fabrics, books, leatherwork, and beading (aside from the Maasai beading, which you're better off buying direct from the Maasai women who will accost you everywhere on the road). Look out for Shanga Shangaa jewelry, a new craft development wherein the beads are made from fabric and recycled glass. Even if you don't buy anything, Cultural Heritage is a useful place to orient yourself in terms of the remarkable breadth of East Africa's crafts and arts, as well as the superb quality available. Items at Cultural Heritage tend to be sourced from the best artists and artisans available, so you are paying for Saif's excellent eye and local knowledge, which (despite his outlandish new building) is clearly considerable. There is also a DHL office right there, making the purchase decision of even very large items that much easier to make.
Romancing Tanzania's Stone: A Good Investment? -- While the U.S. and USSR raced to see who could land the first man on the moon, Mick Jagger whined Under My Thumb, and Carnaby Street was awash in the floral fashions of the '60s, Manual d'Souza, a tailor in the sleepy backwater that was Arusha, traded in his scissors for a prospector's hat and headed off to seek his fortune in gold. Some say that, in a bizarre and lucky twist of fate, the hapless tailor's path crossed that of a Maasai cattle herder named Ali Juyawatu, who had picked up a handful of particularly beautiful blue crystals after a fire had swept through the Mererani Hills; others say that D'Souza himself stumbled across them while searching for his gold. Regardless, D'Souza sold the blue stones to John Saul of Swala Gem Traders, who, in turn, sold them to Henry Platt, president of Tiffany & Co. A year later, in 1968, Platt launched tanzanite, a rare new gemstone "from the Kilimanjaro foothills." To this day, the only source of tanzanite in the world is the several-square-mile area in the Mererani (also known as Merelani) Hills, 70km (43 miles) southeast of Arusha, and the pretty blue stone is thus a thousand times more rare than a diamond (and the market, incidentally, just as controlled).
Aside from big company interests, there are some 430 claims mined by nonmechanized miners in Mererani, with daisy-chain workers hand-excavating the mining shafts, an unregulated system shrouded in an atmosphere of treachery and Deadwood-style skullduggery until relatively recently, when government officials realized that there was far more tanzanite in circulation internationally than their records could account for, and new systems were set in place. Tanzanite was also at the center of a post-9/11 controversy, when suspicions arose that certain sales were a money-laundering front for Al Qaeda. These have since been repudiated by the U.S. State Department, and tanzanite is once again seen as a "clean" gem, with a concurrent rise in price.
However, there remains a growing concern that supply could be depleted in a few decades, and the gem could represent a potentially lucrative investment. Purchasing it in Tanzania means cutting out the middle man (or men), but be sure to do so from a reputable dealer. And what could be better than purchasing it from Swala Gem Traders (www.swalagemtraders.com), the same company, still owned by the Saul family, who first put tanzanite on the market? Today it is an international wholesale trader and export organization, with an outlet in The Arusha Hotel.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.