A few months ago, while writing about the album Congotronics by Kunono No.1, the reviewer from the Observer newspaper described the sound as being 'like an African market falling over a cliff'. Anyone who has visited an African market knows exactly what he meant.
Three things immediately set an African market apart from those with which most western shoppers are familiar. The first is the noise, a kind of insistent, optimistic cacophony which resonates with people trying to persuade you to buy. The second is the colours, bright primary hues drawing visitors to stalls strewn with garments screaming red, yellow, florescent green and orange. Finally there are the smells, a mixture of aromatic foods and spices and other odours, which are clearly not all safe, or savoury but which when mixed with the other pungent food smells just cannot be identified clearly.
And then, of course, there are the children. It has been suggested that children at African markets are all there to beg. Certainly some do, but for many the market, especially if it is awash with tourists, becomes a place where they can view other cultures through a kind of reversed exoticism. Just as westerners have constructed a discourse of the exotic around particular destinations and peoples so it is that African children are fascinated by the paraphernalia of tourism, the digital cameras, the ludicrous headgear, the inappropriate 'safari' clothing and, above all, the designer sunglasses. The children who colonise markets in African tourist destinations are much more likely to beg for your Ray Bans and Pradas than they are to ask for money.
The most prevalent market to be found in areas where tourists gather is the traditional craft market. Naturally it is unlikely that the goods to be found there are in any way traditional. Instead local themes are worked into pseudo-traditional objects and imbued, through clever sales banter, with mystical connotations. Virtually all these types of market are to be found on the streets or at the side of a busy highway to a famous beauty spot and, amazingly, the tour buses always seem to need to stop for a comfort break just beside these very markets. One such market is to be found at Okahandji just outside Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, on the way north to Bushman territory. Basically the market consists of two parallel rows of three-sided corrugated huts stretching approximately half a mile with each hut boasting a make-shift table which acts as a display case on which hundreds of crudely made simulcra are exhibited. Each stall has identical objects, so, having seen the first few the only task left to the visitor is to try and negotiate the best price. This negotiation is best left to a local but this can be embarrassing since the local in question will normally manage to extract a price which could not possibly come close to covering the cost of making the object, however rudimentary it appears. Wooden masks, bowls made from electrical cable, dolls in 'traditional' dress, lizards and cars twisted from wire and witch doctor dolls constructed using paper maiche; all can be bought for a few pence if you have the right guide. Central to these transactions is the desperation of the stall owner to make a sale. If any interest is shown in a stall the owner immediately implores you to come in and see his goods 'free' and he (for it is always he, women being confined to the back of the stall where they make food and entertain the children who are not trying to attain sunglasses) will then continually bombard you with examples of the gifts you should be taking home with you at 'good' or indeed 'best' price. At this point most tourists are caught in the craft moral trap. They want the object as cheaply as possible but do not want to be seen to be exploiting the native population. Eventually a compromise will be reached whereby a middle price is paid on the grounds that 'even if I am being ripped off, they really need the money'. Suffice to say there are tourists from countries where even this small moral dilemma has no significance. Recently these markets have reached a point where all traces of apparent 'authenticity' is rapidly disappearing and the artefacts are being churned out using mass production facilities ensuing that every mask is identical and meaningless.
If a tourist wished to find an 'authentic' market experience it would be necessary to visit what used to be called the 'townships'. Of course the fact that no tourist could enter such an area without a mentor makes this experience impossible for most travellers. Here, nevertheless, is the real African market experience. Rather than being a market placed in a specific location the pitches in the black housing communities can be found at the edge of the ring roads which encircle them. Dozens of half-built sheds sell everything from fruit and vegetables to second-hand parts for the 'buckies' or pick-ups which hurtle around the communities with groups of passengers clinging to the vehicle and possibly even life. Stalls look vacant but if approached the owner will suddenly appear and produce one or two items which are placed on the table. This is particularly true if any form of technology is involved since these are easily stolen and cannot be stocked in large numbers because of the cost. Hence a camera stall might have one or two cameras which appear and disappear according to the view of the owner as to whether a sale might be immanent.
Where the technology is booming, as in mobile telephone sales (used only for texting incidentally - talking is much too expensive), the stall might become a shop, but still a shop which has a temporary feel to it. A blue plastic tent will act as a barber's salon and cars full of young men drive by and the occupants hurl insults at those having the African equivalent of a 'short back and sides'.
In South Africa in particular there are stalls which act as unique examples of currency exchanges. The commodity in demand is 'tackies', the South African term for trainers. In a grotesque mimic of western society the branded training shoe has become a symbol of 'cool' and hence pairs are exchanged at open-air stalls both for cash and for other pairs of trainers so that the wearer can pretend to have more than one pair. Even the most dilapidated pair of trainers will have some value provided they are of a well-known brand. Again, few pairs appear on the stall for display and the merchandise is treated with the utmost security.
The most interesting stalls in these locations, however, are the hot food stalls. It is at these that the tourist knows s/he is a stranger in a strange gastronomic land. Even if the food is recognisable (and often many of the vegetables and meats are not) the nature of their cooking makes them out of bounds to non-locals.
One of the most famous of these food markets is that which graces the shore line at Stonetown, the capital of the island of Zanzibar. Each night hundreds of locals and visitors jostle around the half-mile of stalls which cook food. Much of this food is taken straight from the sea behind the stalls - octopus, squid, giant prawns, a range of fish cooked in banana leaves, and seemingly unending types of meat and poultry barbecued on skewers and piled on newspaper. And all of this is washed down with sugar beet juice squeezed through former washing machine mangles as you wait. Of course the fear of Hepatitis A and food poisoning ensures that only the locals can pay the required dollar to fill a paper plate to toppling point and find a view of the setting sun to savour what, for this writer, was the most enticing food he had ever seen.
And perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is the case that the authentic will always be out of reach to the traveller, the interloper who comes, probably exploits and leaves thinking s/he now knows all about Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania or Zanzibar. At the market, however, few locals will ever order a fried egg for breakfast knowing that the chances are it will come with a greyish white yoke, a consequence of a lack of protein in the hens. They know better and, probably, that's exactly as it should be.