This past weekend, I finally went to Maasai Market! I’d been planning to go, but something would always come up and I’d have to postpone. Maasai Market is an open-air bargain shop and all my friends told me I’d get ripped off if I went alone and the sellers heard my accent. So, everyone recommended that I go with a Kenyan. I believe it’s called Maasai Market but the sellers were originally mostly from the Maasai ethnic group. And the artistic wares, all handmade by the Maasai.
So Gladys took me to the Maasai Market right next to the Kenya International Conference Center (KICC). Gladys was an intern at K24. Having completed the 3 month internship, she has now resumed school. The Maasai Market at the KICC is open on Saturdays and the one next to K24 is open Tuesdays. So I went with Ksh5,000 expecting to come out with 6 or 7 nice fabrics and some jewelry. A colleague at K24 said I can buy khanga or lesso fabric for about Ksh300 and kitenge for Ksh600. Pastor Frida said I’d buy them for Ksh1,000 or so. Pretty big discrepancy, right?
I knew when we were getting closer to the market because all of a sudden I saw white people. I told Gladys this is definitely the type of place that white people like. Gladys laughed and agreed.
She said the West has the perception that the Maasai are the quintessential Kenyans. Truly, the classic image of the Maasai is world famous: tall, chestnut brown skin, very slender guys with long cornrowed hair dyed red, wearing a red and/or purple plaid wrap, standing on one leg and holding a tall wooden staff. And their women- big, white teeth with baby smooth, wrinkle-free skin with bright necklaces and bangles. Bald. But, their beauty is unmistakable. During the colonial days, the Maasai warrior was described as the “noble savage.” I think most Western visitors to Kenya want to see the Maasai people. Shoot… I know I did.
I have two Kenya travel books and both have extensive descriptions of the Maasai and don’t give much attention to the nearly five dozen other ethnic groups in Kenya. The Maasai people are known to love beauty. Guys and females take great care in grooming.
I’m glad I went to the market with Gladys because she was excellent with bargaining. Immediately upon entering the shop, a young guy approached us and led us somewhere. That’s the way it seems to work. A guy comes to “help” you, and yes, he is helping but he is also making sure he gets paid. A young white couple was in front of us and a black Kenyan was running around them, like a lost puppy, trying to help. The white guy was very friendly, patting the Kenyan on his shoulder and smiling, but the lady was smart. She told the Kenyan, “no, we’re okay we don’t need help.” But the Kenyan was persistent. And the lady had to tell him three times, “no.”
So, a guy walked up to Gladys and I as Gladys was pointing to some fabric. “No, I don’t want tye-dye,” I told her.
The guy directed our attention to a wall of T-shirts. I told him I want khanga to make clothes. He understood right away. “Follow me!” He said.
Gladys and I twisted and turned throughout the market to keep up with the guy and of course, he made sure we didn’t get lost. I watched my feet to make sure I didn’t step on any jewelry, wooden wares, legs, stones, drums, and the like. We finally stopped where a lady was sitting and the guy showed me different colors of fabric. I told him I want something bright, purples and blues and yellows. Whenever I would pick up something, he’d say, “Oh, that’s pretty!” I ended up with three pieces of fabric. I believe 1 was khanga and 2 were kitenge, which is of better quality. He told me the total was Ksh4,000.
I was like, “no way!”
Gladys told him it’s too much. They continued talking as two other guys snaked over to listen to the bartering. One of the guys tapped my shoulder, “I have art! Nice art. Come look at my art.”
I said, “no” as firmly and politely as I could and went back to listening to Gladys and the guy as they spoke Kiswahili.
But the guy tapped me again, “Art. Very nice. Come see.”
Another guy walked up to me, “I have nice khanga.”
Finally the young guy settled on Ksh3,600.
I said it is still to much and pretended to walk away. He finally came down to Ksh3,000.
Gladys asked me if that is ok. I said yes. She asked if I am settled with what I have.
A green and orange pattern caught my eye and I bent down to look at it.
“You want to buy more? Or you want to switch?” the young guy asked. I was beginning to like this guy. He was very forward, but not annoying. Friendly, but not pushy. And his clever countenance and dashing eyes reminded me of my brother, Arinze.
“I’m just thinking!” I said with a laugh.
All three guys then laughed at once, as if on-cue.
“Take your time. Please. Think,” the young guy said with a broad smile exposing exquisite teeth.
I settled on my original three (red, yellow and black; yellow and green; sea green and white) and shook the guys hand. I guess he was happy.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“Now, I show you my art. Nice art.”
Gladys looked at me.
“I’m not interested in art,” I said.
Gladys asked if I needed anything else.
The guy lit up, “Come! Yes, come!”
Again, we snaked through the wares and sellers and buyers. With every step of the way, someone would see the Canon SLR camera hanging around my neck and advertise their goods in front of my face.
The guy led us to a woman sitting quietly. Before her feet lay about 400 beautiful necklaces and behind her, about 200 pairs of earrings. I picked up a jade stone necklace.
The guy said, “Two thousand five hundred.”
I laughed and walked away with Gladys behind me speaking to the guy.
I said, “The khanga wasn’t even 2,000 so what is he talking about?”
I’m not a fool. Gladys laughed and told the guy it is too much. We walked to another stall but this man followed us with the necklace draped between his long fingers.
I stopped to look at a beautiful, large elephant sculpture and another guy, tall and slim tapped my shoulder. He pointed to my camera and picked up a drum. He said that I can take a picture of him playing the drum for money.
“How much?” I asked.
He said Ksh200.
“50,” I said.
Gladys confirmed, “50 bob! 50 bob!”
“Sawa,” he said.
He began to beat and I felt kind of awkward. People began looking around, trying to find who was paying this guy to bang the drum. They found me and I was immediately surrounded by sellers. I gave the guy a 50 and he smiled. “Asante sana.”
A lady came to Gladys with the same beautiful jade necklace I had wanted earlier. This was the same lady who sat quietly as the guy led us to her stall. She spoke to Gladys. Apparently, she was the true seller of that necklace and the guy was just trying to make a sale off commission. I heard her say “500” to Gladys. I told her there was something else I liked.
We walked back to her stall.
I ended up buying three earrings and the jade necklace- all for Ksh1000. I did some bargaining of my own!
I thanked the lady and she was so happy.
“Keep those brokers away,” Gladys told the lady with a smile.
The lady nodded.
Maasai Market at KICC, I’ll be back. I’ll surely be back someday.