Expat Life: The Joy of Foreign Markets

by missfootloose on July 9, 2011 · 21 comments

in Africa, expat stories, Ghana, shopping

As a foreigner living the expat life you have the fabulous opportunity to go shopping in new and exciting places. Yes, I can hear your groans coming from various dark corners of the globe. I know you don’t all live in Singapore or Dubai or Paris, and some of you ache for the joy of exploring big, luxury shopping emporiums, but trust me, fascinating shopping experiences can be had in other places. Such as Makola market in Accra, the capital of Ghana, West Africa.

Fabric for sale in Makola Market

Photo © Andrea Papitto

I know, dear readers, that you slavishly read every word I write, so you are aware of course that I moved to Moldova in Eastern Europe a few months ago. Having visited the central market in the capital Chisinau (see last week’s post) I could not help remembering the very different market in Ghana, West Africa, where I happily expated for a number of years. So, allow me to offer you here the re-posting of a story about my sweaty shopping adventure in a tropical market. (Fortunately the smells don’t move through cyberspace.)

THE EXPAT GIRLS GO SHOPPING

One morning over coffee my friends Tara and Natalie and I plan a trip to Makola market. Tara from Canada is in need of bead supplies for her jewelry-making business. Natalie from the USA needs a wedding dress. Instead of a wedding at home in California, she and her man Max prefer a Ghanaian ceremony here. Contemporary Ghanaian fashion being stunning, Natalie covets a locally designed gown, and what better place than Makola market to buy fabric?

Me? I‘m looking for a length of market cloth. Something bright and colorful for a skirt, and maybe some for a table cloth. I never have enough fun table cloths. And maybe there’ll be something else that strikes my fancy.

African markets are fabulous places, and don’t let anyone tell you different. You can find things there you won’t find in any shopping mall in America, no matter how much money you have. Such as mud cloth and thunder stones and dried shrimp by the kilo and little monkey skulls and porcupine quills.

A typical Ghanaian market stall

And of course you can buy interesting food and charcoal braziers and cell phones and long wooden fufu pounders. Oh, and let’s not forget the beauty products, such as bleaching creams and hair dye and shea butter, which is wonderful stuff for chapped lips. I tried it out during our cold and dry Christmas visit to Virginia, and I had lips soft as a baby’s bottom.

However, interesting similarities exist. In Makola market, as in an American shopping mall, you can have your hair done, your shoes repaired, and your teeth fixed. It’s cheaper in the market here, but you might want to pass up some of these services.

An American shopping mall is redolent of money and perfume and potpourri and greasy french fries. Makola has smells you will never encounter at the mall: Roasting plantain, simmering palm nut soup, dried fish, open gutters, goat droppings. Really, it’s a mind-expanding experience.

So, one sweaty tropical morn, the three of us pile into a pink taxi and find our way to the sprawling market downtown. First we go in search of Tara’s beading supplies. She’s a master at bargaining and makes the market mammies laugh even when they don’t get the joy of suckering a big price out of an obruni (foreigner, white person).

Just a small sample of my own collection of beads

Mission accomplished, we head for the cloth section. It’s easy to become over-stimulated taking in all the noise, color and hustle and bustle of the market. The selection of cloth is staggering. Stall after stall after stall has neatly folded lengths of cloth on display, hanging on racks or stacked in colorful piles.

We study the various motifs incorporated in the designs. Birds, flowers, fish, an occasional fruit or vegetable are to be expected, as are the traditional adinkra symbols, Ashanti stools and cowry shells. More unusual are the various human body parts that appear in the designs–eyes, hands, knobby feet. Icons of modern civilization also find their way on African fabrics — cell phones, keys, screw-in light bulbs, computers.

Birds are prettier than cell phones

So, I have no trouble at all finding fun pieces to use as table cloths. But interesting as they are, these fabrics are not suitable for a wedding dress, at least not the one Natalie has in mind, so we plow on down the crowded streets and alleys, trying not to trip and fall into a slimy, putrid gutter.

We discuss Natalie’s wedding dress needs with several market ladies. They are friendly and curious.

“You marry a Ghanaian man?” they want to know.

Natalie tells them no, and we joke with them about marriage. They are not a romantic lot. One rotund mammie has just kicked her man out the door. “He no good. All day he do nothing. I work all day and he take my money and buy beer!”

“I am sorry,” I say solemnly. Marital unhappiness is a sad thing.

“I no be sorry,” says she, eyes flashing. “What I need man for, ey? I have money, that’s better.”

Market mammy

They all laugh uproariously, their bosoms quivering in merriment. One thing they don’t have in Makola Market is snooty salesgirls wearing size one clothes and four-inch heels, the type of chick who looks down her nose at you in your size eight or ten. These Ghanaian women wear flip-flops and their generous bodies are wrapped in market cloth with designs of fish or neckties. They tell us we are too skinny and should eat more fufu. They’re fun and helpful and point us in the right direction and finally, Natalie finds her fabric.

It’s white with shimmery ribbons of bright color running through it. It’s gorgeous. Will work great with the pattern she has chosen, a modern Ghanaian fashion design. I can’t wait to see it.

By now we are exhausted, hungry and thirsty. There is no such thing as a food court in the market; food is everywhere, carried on women’s heads, bubbling in pots by the side of the road, served up in little chop bars along the street. The three of us consider our needs, which include a place to sit and rest, and sanitary facilities, preferably of the enclosed variety. So we bail out of the market and find us a funky Rasta eatery nearby. It’s one the Peace Corps volunteers enjoy so it’s good enough for us.

And just like our sisters back home in vast shopping malls and big city shopping centers, we have lunch. Not a Greek salad, though.

***

Do you have a fun or interesting story about an expat shopping experience? Do you like open markets in tropical countries? What do you like to buy there?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

naomi July 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm

oh Karen, this was LOVELY! I read it with glee, all the while shaking my head “YES!” (very similar to some of my favorite markets in India … although without the heavy bosom’d mammies)

I will never forget our first visit to an open air market in Delhi. We’d only been here 3 days when we set foot inside and OY. The fish smell, the meat (I won’t go into it here) …. but the finds – you CAN find anything, if you set your mind to it!

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missfootloose July 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I’d love to explore an Indian market, smells and all! The heat is not your friend in these tropical markets, but they are more interesting than the sterile shopping places in the Western world. (Not that I don’t appreciate air-conditioning!)

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marja July 10, 2011 at 2:06 am

Oh what a beautiful fabric and nice beads. Love the reaction of the African lady. Good on her to kick out her lazy husbanc. I love markets. We had one in font of our house every week when I was young. I love markets anywhere. They are always so colourful and full of life

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missfootloose July 14, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Yes, the fabric and the beads are wonderful in Ghana. I could never resist buying more! When in Holland, I always go to the Saturday market in Sneek. It is small, but I love the cheese and the flowers. And of course there’s the organ playing in the street on the way over, which puts you in a fun mood.

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Maria July 10, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Feels like I’m right there with you — I can almost smell the goat droppings! Thanks for brightening my day with another great post.

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GutsyLiving July 12, 2011 at 6:45 pm

How I love to laugh in the morning reading your stories. This one reminded me of Nigeria and I could hear the Ghanian woman’s voice speaking and visualize her gestures.

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missfootloose July 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm

I’m sure the Nigerian women have much in common with their Ghanaian sisters!

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Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot July 14, 2011 at 1:27 am

I love markets, you get a real slice of life, so much better than the tourist shops – they’re a chance to buy real things locals use and eat the food they do:) Thanks for taking me on a shopping trip with the girls!

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Philippa July 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I admire your adventurous natures, I agree with all your points about the wonders and fascinating aspects of African markets. But I still wince at the heat of standing out for being so darn WHITE.

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missfootloose July 14, 2011 at 5:16 pm

You get used to it. Besides, in Ghana they’re used to ‘obrunis’ and in the city they don’t look at you twice.

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eva hamori July 15, 2011 at 12:36 am

My goodness the colourful pictures of the market are breathe taking! What an adventure to be in Africa! It’s on my bucket list.

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missfootloose July 15, 2011 at 8:47 am

Eva, yes, do go! West Africa is very colorful culturally and the people in Ghana are cheery and fun to be with. Even their funerals are parties!

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MaryWitzl July 15, 2011 at 11:42 pm

This had me sighing wistfully — I want to go to a Ghanian market. Those beads! That fabric! And I am desperate for a thunder stone, and I don’t even know what it is.

My daughter is always thrilled that the Africans she has met comment favorably on her zaftig figure and encourage her to eat more to keep it up. She wishes that more westerners shared their sentiments.

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missfootloose July 16, 2011 at 8:17 am

I was addicted to those beads. I would put strings of them in a nice dish and had them as decoration on the coffee table or side table! In many places in Africa the more you weigh the better. It means you’ve got money for food, your father or husband feeds you well. For the young women this idea is changing. They want to be skinny, like the Western image of beauty.

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Sailor July 16, 2011 at 3:32 am

Very interesting market and I would love to shop some of the beautiful collections from the local market!

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Lola July 16, 2011 at 9:13 am

I found you through BPOTW. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve never lived as an expat, so this is an interesting window into that life.

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Christopher July 17, 2011 at 2:27 pm

A very positive take on these markets, and the fabrics are beautiful.
Have you thought about submitting a story (fiction or non-fiction) to the Writers Abroad anthology? The submission guidelines are here:

http://www.writersabroad.com

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missfootloose July 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Thanks for the suggestion, Christopher. I’ll look into it.

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Britt-Arnhild July 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Nice to meet you here in blogworld. Thanks for leading me here through a comment in my blog 🙂

I will be following you.

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guyana gyal July 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I like the pink taxi you girls went to the market in and the beads, I want beads and cloth with modern icons, isn’t it great how they weave modern icons into the traditional cloth?

I don’t like bad smells though, and if there’s a bad smell about, I grumble LOUDLY when I go to our market. I’m kinda anti-mess.

What I enjoy about our market is the dialogue, the colours, the jokes, the stories, the people.

You’ve brought it all alive here!

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missfootloose July 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I’m kind of anti-mess, too, in general, but in the Ghanaian market it is part of the deal and you accept it. I understand what you mean about the stories and the people. Markets are so much more alive that way then modern shopping plazas.

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