Untold riches

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HR-Credit-'MATTHEW-COVARR'-AR010-copy-1Wandering through traditional village food markets has long been a pastime of travellers. However, few ever leave with anything more than photographs and vibrant memories. Realising he’d be in Arusha for a while, Matthew Covarr decided to make Kilomero market the place for his regular grocery shop. Did he get his just desserts? (All images by Matthew Covarr)

“How much is it for a mango?” I ask calmly. “Aah… Mzungu. These are very fresh for you. As first customer today, 2000 shillings for one,” the trader mentions casually. As my mind rapidly clocks through the dollar conversion rate, the doubtful look on my face results in the price suddenly dropping to 1850. Still not convinced, I walk deeper into the chaotic African produce market before noticing an elderly local also purchasing mangoes.

I pluck up the courage to ask him what he’s just paid. “Each mango is 300 shillings,” he replies. “Are you paying too much?” he asks curiously. Soon we’re going through my list together and he’s kindly writing suggested prices next to each item I need to purchase. The values seem ridiculously low compared to what I’d been quoted earlier.

“But,” the old man warns me, “you are new in the market, so you may have to pay a few shillings more – it’s always like that, whether you are African or not. Once you have been many times, people get to know you.”

I can’t help but wonder whether heading to a supermarket might have been a little easier than this.

With an increasing number of supermarket chains creeping into larger towns throughout the African continent, one has to question the future of Africa’s traditional produce markets. While the cost of supermarket goods may be fairly expensive, the idea of paying what is on the price tag, and having easy access and free parking, makes shopping at these establishments a hassle-free alternative to the markets. That’s all well and good for visitors and expats alike, but what about the locals? What draws them away from the traditional trade areas and into a supermarket? For many, the underlying allure of the heavily branded shelves of supermarket chains comes in the form of status, a symbol of success. But whatever the reasons, the result doesn’t help the local African market trader, just as traditional high street shops in the UK are falling victim to the success of megastores like Tesco.

The central market area forms the hub and life of even the smallest of village settlements. It’s a place where one can get just about anything, from fruit and veg to handmade cooking utensils and wood-burning stoves. Apart from the obvious presence of trade, the market naturally doubles up as an important social meeting place; groups of brightly clothed women stand around in deep discussion, while children keep each other entertained. Nothing about these places suggests ‘express checkout’ or ‘fast lane for less than ten items’. Going to market requires time, and as the old saying suggests, “The West may own the watch, but Africa owns time.”

Keen to get to grips with the inner workings of an African market, I opt to give this new-found shopping experience another try. Back to Arusha’s Kilomero market I go, armed with only my shopping list. It’s not long before I notice that most shoppers are carrying woven reed baskets. Upon asking where I can find them, a man points me in the direction of a group of women nearby who are casually weaving these handy carry bags and selling them for a very reasonable price. Besides being perfect for purpose, the baskets eliminate the potential for the litter problem of the supermarkets where a plethora of plastic bags is dished out freely. The women suggest I also purchase a piece of a khanga, a brightly coloured cloth used as clothing throughout East Africa, as a soft lining to protect my produce from becoming bruised or battered.

Bargaining goes hand in hand with any African market, and the amount of time spent haggling depends entirely on your experience as a market customer. I watch a young woman purchasing carrots next to me. She prods and feels each one, while calmly working the stallholder down to an agreeable price per kilogram. It looks so effortless that I try my hand on bargaining for a pineapple. By the time I am done I’ve knocked about 40 per cent off his initial quote. However, there is a line you can’t cross, no matter how hard you try – traders know the bottom line prices for their goods and won’t drop below them.

I make my way past buckets of tiny dried fish, overflowing drums of beans and cages of live chickens, before a handcrafted steel frying pan grabs my attention. It hangs amongst masses of others, all varying in size. A man sits on a woven mat, beating the next one into shape. We start the negotiations…

I hold a few of the items, knocking the metal with my knuckles attempting to display some knowledge of the strength of cooking pans. “My friend, buy one and number two is free,” states the salesman. It seems that some Western supermarket culture has certainly crept in here. “OK, I’ll give you 2000 shillings,” I say confidently. I chip away at the quoted price, and finally strike an agreement. We shake hands and I’m off.

Within a few visits to what’s now my local market, I’m getting the hang of the haggle and some stallholders even recognise me, remembering my previous orders. The amount of haggling and price negotiation becomes less as traders realise my familiarity with costs.

Over time, the greetings and welcomes from the vendors become commonplace. The frying pan salesman still asks how I’m finding my purchase, and never fails to point out that he’s now making better ones – would I like to have a closer look? During my shopping, I even manage to find a quiet spot for a cuppa where young children are rushing around with tea trays.

While the future of the African market may seem shaky in some areas, the way of life and deep-rooted elements of trading, improvising and community within most African cultures may well be enough to keep these markets alive. One thing is certain: no visit to an African market is the same as the next. Each time I think I know what awaits me, I turn a new corner and find things I hadn’t expected, usually something full of colour and character. I’ve also learned a lesson or two: I now recognise the sound a papaya skin should make when gently tapped to indicate if it’s ripe; and I have just discovered exactly how to get the best part of a fried tilapia fish off the bone in one piece. These are certainly things I’d never have been told in a supermarket.

For most visitors to an African market, apart from walking away with a basket full of organic produce, it’s the colour, the smells, the bustle and the vibe that will all have you wondering, who needs a supermarket?

Top 5 market dos and don’ts
1    Do carry smaller coins and notes
2    Do check all items for damage before filling your basket
3    Do negotiate patiently in a friendly manner
4    Don’t ever agree on a price and then opt out of a deal
5    Don’t ever lose your temper

Originally published in Travel Africa magazine, edition 49

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