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:
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.
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.
Customer 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.
But 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*.
Because 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:
Past the traditional women’s headwear (what are they called anyone?? Gorgeous)
Past the groundnut (peanut) butter:
Past the onions and chillies:
Past the rice and grains:
Past the dried fish:
Past the baskets which bring the produce into the market:
Past Yam lane:
Past the poultry section:
And the butchers:
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
And 8% Never wanted a pet.
And a couple of votes for a horse (of course) and a snake!