I once had a client, a charming Essex girl, who asked me where she could buy clothes in Zanzibar. I explained that within the nearby villages she may be able to buy the local material, but there were no clothes shops or tailors to be found. She looked at me blankly and said, “No, sweetheart. Cloves. Like the spices, innit?”
I’ve always enjoyed shopping in Africa. Not the shopping malls particularly – those are the same throughout the world, but the traditional African market place. There is always so much going on, so many sights and smells and the noise I just love the noise. Whether it’s a truck’s reversing warning that plays the Lambada on a loop, or the haunting strains of Arabic radio, there is always something that cuts through the general chatter and wheeling and dealing going on all around.
There’s a market in central Dar-es-Salaam where, rumour has it, if you park your car nearby it’ll be stripped, disassembled and on 57 different stalls before you can say ‘valet’. Needless to say it’s a great place to find spare parts. But it’s the craft markets that appeal most to me, though many of the things I end up buying are of rather less use than, say, a carburettor from a 1966 Renault 4. There are various craft markets in Cape Town – regular ones at Kirstenbosch or Noordhoek or Hout Bay or the formal one at the Red Shed in the Waterfront, for instance. The Greenmarket Square one is famous, but the one that steals my heart each time is the Sunday market in Greenpoint.
Straggled along the road’s edge, the stalls vie for space under the gnarled trees and the sound of drumming drifts through the air. It has the atmosphere of a true meeting point for Africa with French, Portuguese or Swahili just as likely to be heard as Xhosa, Afrikaans or English.
Everything is for sale and no one is in a rush. Skins and materials, carvings and metalwork, hats and shoes, beadwork, sharks teeth, artwork, ostrich eggs, masks, jewellery you name it, it is there, right down to the regular tourist tat of ‘I ♥ Cape Town’ mugs or the Big Five coaster sets.
Stall holders are persuasive and friendly without being pushy and seem genuinely happy just to chat even if you don’t buy anything. I’ve even been offered an upturned crate on which to sit and feed Joseph when he was tiny. Now he runs around, banging on the drums and stroking the skins or stands stock still, staring at the buskers.
And the buskers are impressive – really impressive. There is always at least one group of children who sing and dance all day with more energy and rhythm and soul than my primary school peers could muster in a year. And there is always the man dressed in an extraordinary costume mainly involving feathers and a six foot high hat with eggs glued to the front. His motivation is questionable, but the fact that he can wear that and sing and dance at the same time is worth a bob or two.
I would urge all visitors to Cape Town to take a meander down the stalls at Greenpoint on a Sunday. And not just to buy some souvenirs to take home, but to take the opportunity to speak to the people there, to gauge a tiny part of the bigger picture.
Last week I met Jacob from Cameroon whose father sends stuff to him to sell to ‘the rich people of South Africa’ so he can send money home again. There’s also Mohammed from Senegal who makes fabulous dresses with an African twist. He’s been here for 17 months and longs to go home but, he claims, there is just no money to be made in Senegal.
I bought a painting from Taj who hails from the Punjab, and wants to see the world. He helps out in a family shop in Mossel Bay during the week, and every Sunday he leaves at 3am to make the 360km journey to Cape Town to sell his paintings at the Greenpoint market which, he reckons, is the best in South Africa. From the proceeds he will fund his journey to London and then America. “It’s small steps” he says, “ But if you believe enough, you can make your dreams come true”.