Forty-five thousand dollar Toyota Land Cruisers park in front of a modern shopping mall whose interiors rival the variety and low- to mid-range product quality of Walmart in the U.S. or MediaMarkt in Europe. Globalization is tangible here in a way that is more subtle in Holland, Germany, Spain. The stark contrast between the new, well-lit Nakumat superstore and the traditional open markets brings familiarity to wazungu who make Kenya their home for any length of time. In the streets of Nakuru, I may see one foreigner each day, but in the Nakumat there are several with each visit.
It’s an easy thing to do, to default to the place where prices are presented on labels and product return is possible, even if challenging. There is an attraction to the familiar—the clean floors, brand name foods, pharmaceuticals, cameras and thirty-six inch LCD televisions. Skippy, Del Monte, Yoplait, Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic level the playing field in one respect, but create a greater chasm in the same stroke.
I calculated the number of jobs displaced by the new shopping mall as no less than 150. Bernard confirmed my observation with a story of local concern when Nairobi based Nakumat hired Nairobi managers and sales clerks instead of training locals. A stark contrast to the promise of jobs when they bid construction. Sounds terribly familiar to the multiple-decades onslaught of the same in the U.S.
Just around the corner women sell fresh produce purchased from the farmers, washed and stacked for the passers-by. Onions, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, squash, carrots, eggs, corn, zucchini and some vegetables I do not recognize. None bright in color nor perfect in shape. All show the blemishes of food produced on a farm in which soil, rain, and human hands remain the primary motivators of planting, growth, harvesting, and delivery.
For the average tourist, their goods and wares are but an interesting display worthy of a photograph, smile, and attempted greeting in Kiswahili, “Jambo!” and “Asante!” But for the locals, this is where their food has been traded for centuries.
The farmer’s market is where those who labour in the fields traditionally came to sell their produce to other vendors, wholesale. In recent years, it has become a place for direct-to-consumer sales as well and is now terribly crowded. It is not as easily found nor is it a place for the faint of heart. Not like Barnes & Nobel with the launch of the last of the Harry Potter series, but suffocating, stifling, a Japanese subway car at rush hour packed beyond comfort at any level.
Shoulders, hips, thighs, breasts and backs pressed tightly as mud sucks at the bottom of shoes and bare feet, and vendors scold those who do not recognize when they have stepped on the corner of a vendors mat, an onion or bunch of cloves pressed into the mud.
At roughly eleven thirty, the gate closed for reasons no one was able to explain. Bernard and I were caught inside along with hundreds of others. We were told this happens every day, for a half hour, maybe more. The chain which held the two halves of the gate in union gave me further sense of feeling trapped. Bernard and I looked for another exit, but others who had also done the same said there was none.
Twenty minutes passed. The sun penetrated my hair and caused my scalp to itch in that tell-tail pre-burn state. A young man climbed to the top of the right gate, jumped over, and pressed the gate to open again in our direction. The full assembly of vendors and buyers who had aligned themselves for the gate to open the other direction, on both sides, were forced to move en mass against the growing pressure from behind.
I recognized the situation as somewhat dangerous and made certain I did not fall. Bernard and I waited for the pressure to subside, but we realized to remain where we stood was no longer an option. The only way out was to press ahead, to physically move ourselves at any expense toward the gate which was now just one meter open.
I caught the eyes and face of a teenage boy to my front and side. Clearly, this was a daily, almost enjoyable challenge for him despite the anxiety and frustration it caused everyone. He yelled, pushed, and squeezed past me in the opposite direction. I turned to Bernard who was as astounded as I despite his having lived here all twenty one years of his life.
We pressed hard, hands on the shoulders and back of those in front. Our legs shuffled in small strides, some to counter-balance, some to make progress. The mud threatened to cause us to loose footing. One … two … three meters passed the gate which was now at a forty five degree angle. The pressure was released and I laughed uncomfortably, looking back to Bernard who was shaking his head. We were free of the market and pleased again to be in the hustle of the Nakuru streets.
Bernard and I walked to the Top Market, in the center of town, one block off Kenyatta Avenue. This is the kind of place both locals and tourists enjoy for the environment is less chaotic, the pressure to buy reduced to a simple nod, wave, or greeting. The diversity of foods produced from both soil and tree is accented by mounds of fresh spices and herbs. The colours and aromas are astounding.
The desire to purchase a small bag of each without knowledge of its name or culinary function is overwhelming, a reminder of what it was like to be a child and believe in magical powders, crystals, and perfectly polished stones. Some seventeen years ago I purchased a massive amount of spices from the bizarre in Cairo, Egypt. The last of that cayenne pepper now sits in a glass jar on the back of a stove in a kitchen in Seattle, Washington.
The Relationship of Shopping
I have in the past nine months transitioned from East Jerusalem and the West Bank of Palestine where a relationship is quickly established with each and every vendor, to the comparative cold of Holland and Germany where a greater effort must be made to make connections. In Barcelona, Spain European shopping convenience is complimented by the slower Mediterranean culture. Here in Kenya the contrast between the two worlds is directly evident. Traditional open markets offer time to make eye contact and talk and shake hands in the never-ending Kenyan weaving of fingers, palms, and fist bumps.
I walk the narrow paths formed by women sitting on the ground, their produce displayed before them on open gunny sacks and each greets me. I stand in the grocery store for ten minutes, a clerk just a few meters away too busy with his or her cell phone to bother to ask if I needed any assistance. At the check-out counter the plastic bottles and shrink-wrapped packages slide past the bar code scanner, the speed of transaction is far more pressing than the interaction. Those in line behind me grow impatient if my card does not scan or I fumble with my wallet.
What’s more, I pay three to four times the cost for the same vegetables only one or two days earlier purchased from the farmers’ market in which Bernard and I ventured. The florescent lighting, clean floors, and clerks in matching blue uniforms give customers a sense of confidence and familiarity at the expense of the lost relationship.