another trip to Kejetia market – the fabrics

Ladies and their fabric store

I’ve had a rough few weeks of lets call it, cultural re-awakening. When you thought you had life in your foreign country under control, then the old culture shock creeps up and king hits you from behind. There has been frustrations, short tempers, a general malaise of disappointment and maybe even a few tears.

So, it was an absurd case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, when a friend and I decided we needed another trip to Kejetia Markets here in Kumasi, said to be the biggest market in West Africa (I have written about it previously here).

Kejetia Market is a sprawling ecosystem unto itself, said to contain 10,000 individual stallholders. It is located in the centre of Kumasi (it’s also called Central Market), so it involves a drive into the thick traffic of town, and then a walk into the markets.

You push through the crowded streets, dodging tro-tros and motorbikes, past stalls piled high with second hand-everything (shoes, door locks, engine parts, mobile phones), when suddenly you pass through a non-descript metal gate, and the cars have gone. It brings a small sense of relief not having to worry about being run-over, but the space vacated by the cars is now taken up by people. The streets become lanes and alleyways and passageways. One minute you are buying tomatoes, the next a prayer mat, then the tiny stalls of tailors and embroiderers, an antique store squeezed in between, and round the corner and peer down a lane no wider than a metre, are tens of young men making shiny black vinyl flip-flops, all proudly embossed in gold ‘Made in Italy’.

But this trip, we didn’t come for shoes, or tailors or antiques; we came for fabric.

Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll confirm my deep and abiding love of fabrics.

The perfect grey French linen, the darkest indigo denim, Japanese kimonos, embroidered Southeast Asian textiles, Indian saris, anything Marrimekko (and if we can’t afford that, something from our favourite Scandinavian superstore), and the extraordinary woven Ghanaian kente, the fabric of kings. So, when we decided to move to Ghana, you can imagine how excited I was about African wax print. The fabulous colours, the kind of kooky prints…gorgeous.

But the funny thing, and this comes after years of sewing, after we arrived I was kind of dumbfounded as to what to do with the wax print. It looks utterly fabulous on African women, but on obrunis, well, unless it’s broken up by some neutral colours, you end up looking like an overweight missionary trying to blend in with the converted (did I really say that?). So for several months I um-ed and ah-ed and wondered what to do with this extraordinary fabric. I started by covering some foam squares which are readily available everywhere here for our Gold Coast-era sofa. Then I progressed to shopping bags, and now, should I find something predominately navy or in funeral shades, I can wear it as a skirt.

But, as any fabric-nut will tell you, sometimes it’s best just to buy it…the inspiration will come later (or at least a mountain of uncut cloth waiting for inspiration will).

The markets are broadly grouped into areas, meaning that, like with much of the shopping in Ghana, there are areas which sell largely the same thing. After about 10 minutes walking it was clear we were approaching the fabric section:

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Haberdashery supplies between jewellery stores.

School uniform section

The school uniform fabrics. All school uniforms are made to order in Ghana. There are no stores selling ready made.

And then we were there! Aisles of technicolour extravagance. The wonderful thing about wax print is the massive variety of colours and patterns, and indeed should you need more of the same fabric you have previously purchased it’s often difficult to find it again.

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Each of these dividers are a separate stall. Many are no wider than a doorway, smaller than many first world wardrobes. Some stalls are larger, like the gorgeous women in the first photograph. Each stall is easily 10-12 feet high inside, with the fabric stacked neatly in a kaleidoscopic chaos of colour. A few stalls sell machine embroidered wedding cloth, some of which I bought to make a bed head. But it is the variety of the wax print which is dazzling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACustomer service in Ghana is often a contradiction in terms. With so many stalls selling essentially the same product, it was interesting to gauge the responses to two obruni women who were ready to part with some cash. Stallholders sales techniques varied from blank stares into the middle distance, polite greetings and entreaties to enter their stalls. When I asked a woman to look at some fabric very high in her stall she said to me,  “You’d better buy something if you’re making me get this down”, one woman actually hit me and demanded I “BUY SOMETHING”. Needless to say her sales technique wasn’t successful. But once the cash is shown and the deal is done, it’s all smiles and bff’s. It is just another of the multitude of cultural differences, and if you let it, can drive you bonkers.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut I appreciate the difficulty of a sale in a place like this. Every time I visit the market it strikes me as a self-sustaining organism…are the stalls kept in business by other stall holders buying from them? Of course it’s not true, but I do wonder how many ‘outsiders’ venture into the central market everyday to complete their shopping. Many of the goods made by the tailors and shoe makers and others are sold wholesale to vendors outside the markets. And the curse and the joy of the markets is that many things are only found in the markets and the surrounding streets. If I need hinges, or plumbing supplies, anything with a slight speciality about it (i.e.. not a hammer, nails, basic stationery, batteries beyond the standard AA and 9v etc), the stores in my local area don’t supply them. And any question as to where I can find it is invariably met with “You’ll need to go to town”.  *sigh*.

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Check out this guys suit! Awesome.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause there are no cars in the central market, everything has to be carried in. A truly impressive array of things are carried in, mostly atop young girls heads, often in these large enamel dishes. These girls are typically homeless, living on the streets in and around the markets. They earn around $2/day. The enamel dishes are essential for their work and cost (I think) around $10.  Last year I met an American academic who had come to Ghana to study these street girls. Ghana is unusual in that it’s street kids are typically girls (not boys, like the majority around the world). They come from all over Ghana, many from the poorer north, and are essentially sold by their families into this servitude. It’s heartbreaking and seemingly hopeless.

These young women were happy for me to break up their day and take a photograph of them:

girls in marketAnd then it was time to go. We passed out of the fabrics, and into the beads:

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Past the traditional women’s headwear (what are they called anyone?? Gorgeous)

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Past the groundnut (peanut) butter:

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Past the onions and chillies:

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Past the rice and grains:

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Past the dried fish:

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Past the baskets which bring the produce into the market:

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Past Yam lane:

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Past the poultry section:

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And the butchers:

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We walked up and out of the markets, past a reminder of time past:
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P.S. A few weeks ago I asked What pet you most wanted as a kid, I wasn’t alone in wanting a monkey:

33% voted Monkey

25% dog

25% other

8% cat

And 8% Never wanted a pet.

And a couple of votes for a horse (of course) and a snake!

33 responses to “another trip to Kejetia market – the fabrics

      • It’s nice to find your blog, brings back lots of memories. I’ve been to Ghana several times, most recent was 2008 when my son and I stayed for 3 months with his dad and extended family in Asuoyeboa in Kumasi. He also has relatives out towards Sunyani.

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  1. You’ve captured the experience vividly, both visually and in words. I love the sixth photo down which captures the towering stacks of fabric, narrow walkways and baleful stare of a market woman. This market is not for the squeamish or faint of heart!

    Only those who have been to Kejetia can truly appreciate the smells and the vertigo. The claustrophobia from swimming through a torrent of human protoplasm, ducking the head pans, tripping over uneven concrete – dodging hand carts. The intense concentration required to keep your toes in lest they connect with the razor sharp rusted edges of abandoned trail rails or the butchers slamming their machetes into bloody body parts on the pavement. Quick reflexes are a must.

    I think I’ve just talked myself out of one more trip to Central Market before I leave Ghana!

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  2. Thank you so much in sharing your experience. Wow what a market! Those fabrics are indeed marvellous, so shiny and vibrant!
    PS. My mum had a pet monkey as a child. She says he was very tame and loyal to her but also very naughty and used to tease the pet Dog

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    • Thanks for your sweet comments. And yes, your mum is right, the monkey is very cheeky, and very, very fast. But I think the coolest pet ever. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Wow!

    There’s a similar market in Port Gentil although it seems to be much smaller and much less encompassing than Kejetia. We used to go for fabric as well although I sadly never bought any or had anything made. I revel in neutrals that are rarely patterned so while I find the African prints beautiful, I just wasn’t comfortable in any of it. Shopping bags would have been a great idea though, Chris.

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    • Hi Jay, Yes, it’s a tricky thing working out how to use it. I’ve got a real uniform of neutrals going on, and so find it challenging too. And as much as I love African ‘mermaid’ skirts, I just ain’t got the butt for it!

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  4. I do agree, the women are Georgous and all those vibrant colours will almost always liftyour spirits.
    I would have loved my own monkey so I had children instead.Besides dogs, cats and a variety of birds I’ve also had snakes.
    Great post Chris, I look forward to them. I can smell the surroundings and have just put my closed in shoes on.

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  5. Chris,
    you have outdone yourself in sharing in this post. Your photos and descriptive writing is kinda got me teary eyed. Unbelievable picture taking and all the colors are coming through with such brilliance. I have a great HP 27 inch monitor and when i double click on your photos the picture fills the total width of my screen and my cubicle area illuminates with beautiful Black faces, brilliant vegetables and fruits, pet monkeys, fabrics and colors the Pharaohs could only have dreamed of and of course your distinctive writings.
    Today you took us through most of what makes a great short story or even the beginning of that long novel that will eventually come out of you. I especially like that you right out of no where you included in the atmosphere outward projection of intimidation from your surroundings and then, then and then BOOM! actual physical violence. Whoa i damn near fell out of my chair and had to reread the last few lines leading up to you bringing all of us to a real day and real time moment. That event and activity was not expected of course or for us your readers. I mean you have to put it to real text with you and your girlfriend being white in a black atmosphere and that sh*t can possibly jump off at any minute. Although i know 99% of the time it never does and never will…but i am living in the USA and in California and Oakland so bare with me….it’s a USA thing. Plus it made great reading.

    Of course the pics with the little girl was the winner in my book. Hey pictures with beautiful little kids, monkeys are landscapes are always a winner, winner chicken dinner you gotta add them. The girls picture and their situation really tugged at me so that’s the emotional and human side of your blog. Also opening up with whats’ been going on with you got us/me settled in to read about a much deserved nice break and day out for you that kinda took a twist and turns that made a great blog/book/chapter for the day. Sorry you had to experience being assaulted but it was real, it happened and it fits well and goes into the book.

    Question: What do the vendors do when it rains…how do they keep everything dry?
    Question: does your camera include sounds? Can you carry a separate device that could have included sounds and noises to your shopping blog. I would have loved to read, look at pics and hear exactly what you hear while shopping.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Don

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  6. Pingback: TGIA – Thank God it’s Africa | six degrees north·

  7. Keep writing……with of the moods, ups, downs and especially three steps forward and one step back…keep writing…….set back…write about that…..joyous day….write about the good days……..sometimes write with a smile and sometimes your mood will require that you write with a vengeance.
    Vengeance
    1) punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.. real or perceived.

    Chris, you have a talent…i think so and everyone on your blog think so. Way to go…..

    Eight (8) Essentials to/for a good short story writer

    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

    4. Every sentence must do one or two things—reveal character or advance the action.

    5. Start as close to the end as possible.

    6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they’re made of.

    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

    Kurt Vonnegut

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  8. Hi Chris:

    I love your post. Hope you can teach me how to do this when I return in January. One disappointment for me when I went to Kejitia just before leaving, was that I had to search and search for cloth made in Ghana. Most of it was from China. Maybe you have a secret.

    Please add me to whatever media allows me to view your stories.

    Thanks

    Sala

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  9. You may be interested in A Ban Against Neglect, a NGO near Accra helping to move young girls, especially those with children, permanently off the streets. Started by 3 students at the University of Ghana, 2 Americans and a Ghanaian. http://www.aban.org

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  10. Pingback: Leaving Kumasi: reflections, obervations and a list | six degrees north·

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  14. Just got back from Ghana, where I braved the Markola market in Accra. Your beautiful description takes me back to the market. Thank you

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