Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Culturally Speaking: the Masai Market

The heat prickled my skin through the non-tinted windows of the vehicle. Madison, Spencer, and I bounced around in the backseat as Andy drove over innumerable speed bumps and pot holes. I enjoyed riding in the Whitman's Toyota Land Cruiser through the narrow streets of Nairobi. Every trip was like a carnival ride because of all the speed bumps that made my stomach flip. This trip was particularly exciting, however, because Andy and Stacey were taking me to the Masai Market!

Hello Everyone!

Today I will take you back in time to Friday, January 28, 2011. On this particular Friday I visited a foreign market, the Masai Market, for the very first time. I will now give you a narrative of this exciting experience.

Our destination was the Village Market (think mall but with outdoor sections a grocery store) which contained the Masai Market. I had heard little about either of these places, so I had no idea what to expect. The word "market" invoked images in my mind of exotic and sandy open air bazaars filled with spices, fruit, and jewelry. Despite my knowing we no longer live in the 20th century, my imagination wandered to scenes from movies like Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark.

When we arrived at the Village Market, we went through a guarded gate into the parking lot. As we parked and exited the Land Cruiser, Ms. Stacey began to drill me. "Now, people are going to be very pushy. They will call you out and try to sell you anything you look at. Just stay close to us and don't encourage them if you can help it. Tell them you are just looking, and if you do see something you want to buy, tell me and I'll help you negotiate prices."

My heart beat faster with anticipation as we ascended the stone steps up to the market. "See," Stacey pointed out, "they're already starting to swarm." Indeed, several men stood in the entryway waiting for customers.

As we entered the market, I gasped in awe and pleasure at the scene I witnessed. Before us lay a large, open-air room packed with hundreds of vendors. A dark canvas covered the area, providing shade while still allowing a nice breeze to move through the congested bazaar. The hundreds of craftsmen and merchants had spread their wears out on blankets or rugs on the floor. Purses, jewelry, bags, and fabrics hung from standing racks. The variety of items was endless. Silver and jade, baskets and carvings--all spread out over the vast space.

Noise all around us: the noise of people talking, sellers selling, buyers buying, and bargain hunters rejoicing over their catches. Foreigners and nationals alike searched through the handcrafted goodies. I overheard British accents and German conversations. We were not the only Caucasian onlookers, but we could have been the only Americans. I also noticed a Middle-eastern family wandering through the market.

My purse hung diagonally across my body with my hands ever on it. I walked closely behind as Stacey and Madison led Spencer and me down the different aisles (Andy had gone off to get a haircut at a barbershop within the mall). We came to one vendor who sold fabrics, and Ms. Stacey bought a conga--a large piece of colorful, patterned, cotton fabric that can be made into numerous types of clothing items. Madison bargained with the same vendor over a pair of earrings. Shrewdly, Maddie eventually worked the woman down to a reasonable price. Madison's bargaining skills impressed both the seller and me.

We finally worked our way through most of the Masai Market. Stacey asked me what I thought of it. My response: "OH MY GOODNESS!!! I want three of everything!"

Andy rejoined us and interrupted my exclamations. Andy and Stacey led us out of the market into the mall and to a bank where I exchanged some of my American money for Kenya shillings, the Kenyan currency. After the exchange, we went to the open-air, multicultural food court. Stacey gave me a tour of the different restaurants: Italian, Chinese, Greek, even a French bistro. I had long decided on what I wanted to eat, however; and on my first outing on the continent of Africa, I chose cheese pizza and a Sprite. I inhaled that small pizza. It was exactly the piece of home I needed in the midst of jet lag and mild culture shock.

After we finished our food, Andy and Spencer went back to the vehicle while us girls went back the the Masai Market to revisit a few aisles. This time around, I did buy a few items, and Ms. Stacey negotiated appropriate prices on my behalf. I bought a cloth bag and several paper bead necklaces at prices lower than any I would find in the states.

One thing that struck me about my experience at the Masai Market was the different types of vendors. I do not mean the different types of things they sold (though the variety was truly impressive), but the different personalities selling them. Without meaning to, I think I just put all of those merchants and craftsmen in a box. I guess I assumed all of them would ask for unfair prices at first, and several of them proved me wrong (though, there were several who attempted to prove me right). As we talked with one craftswoman, it became apparent Stacey had a relationship with her, and she was a very honest dealer. Another lady I met quoted me a very good price right off the bat. Still another vendor gave Stacey amazingly low prices on baskets.

This experience taught me another thing: bargaining does not just occur between a dishonest dealer and/or a penny pinching buyer. Stacey explained to me how the people at the Masai Market enjoy the ceremony of the haggle. One time, she had just finished bargaining with a man, and after they agreed on a price, he said, "Now I have worked today and can accept your money." I had no idea some (if not most) vendors "must" haggle over prices in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in their work. And I must admit, it's kind of fun to watch people bargain. You hear things like, "Oh, madam! That price is killing me," and from prospective customers, "You want that much for this worthless item!" It reminds me of Proverbs 20:14. "'It's no good, it's no good!' says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase."


  1. Enjoyed this posting, Summer. I felt like I was right beside you shopping with you. I wish there were pictures, to see if my imagination equaled reality!
    It sounds like you are having a grand time. Is living in their house much different than living in the states? I know you can't just head out on your own, but living in a house in Africa? What is that like?

  2. Thank you so much, Mrs. B! Those are good questions, and thank you for asking them. It's not too much different than living in the states. You can't drink the tap water, but that's one of the biggest differences. I will go into more detail about everyday life in my next post :)

  3. Oh, and I'll try to take pictures the next time I go to the market :)

  4. I could hear you when you answered Stacey "OH MY GOODNESS!!! I want three of everything!" Am so glad you are enjoying the culture!!

  5. =) Shopping and pizza in Africa ... seriously, does it get better than that? haha