Expat Life: The Joy of Foreign Markets

by Miss Footloose

As a foreigner living the expat life you have the fabulous opportunity to go shopping in new and exciting places like exotic foreign markets. 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 sprawling, tropical African markets . . . .

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 my expat traveling life has landed me in France. The markets here are fabulous. The ambiance! The food! The yummy cheeses and crusty breads and wonderful mushrooms and local honeys . . .  Anyway, having visited my local open air market for the first time again after many months of Covid restrictions, I could not help remembering the very different market in Accra, 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 one of my many sweaty shopping adventures in the fabulous Makola Market in Accra. (Fortunately the smells don’t move through cyberspace.)


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.

Ghana Market Cloth

My own stash so far. You never have enough!


Oh, the things you can buy!

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.


Ghana Accra Makola Market

Hot pepper by the can full


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 visits to Virginia, and I had lips soft as a baby’s bottom.

But guess what?

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

Makola Market Hair Braiding

Getting your hair braided in Makola Market

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 Makola 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).

A small sample of my own Ghanaian 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, sexy high heels . . .

Photo courtesy of Vlisco.com

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.

The joy of being married, or not . . .

“You marry a Ghanaian man?” one of the women wants 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.

No worries!

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

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.

Ghana market women

It’s easy to have fun with Ghanaian women

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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guyana gyal

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!

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

I will be following you.


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:


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.

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

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.

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

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.

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!

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.

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

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


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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