The market in Embu must cover a square mile. The main part is like a warehouse with open walls, packed with stalls selling fruit and vegetables. On the outskirts, part of the market is shaded by rusty corrugated iron sheeting, or plastic sheets secured over a crude frame made from branches. Traders selling the same items stick together. I walked through the fake DVD section, past the cheap rucksacks and luggage (how do you spell Vuitton?), through the cheap Chinese vests and underwear to the shoes.
I must admit, I have a hankering for the black and white jobs with white stitching and laces.
Then past the football replica shirt section, mostly second hand.
The ironmongery section caught my eye. There were “home safes”, a tin with a slot for saving coins, a mousetrap and a shiny silver iron with a wooden handle on top. I have always fancied an iron like this, heated by red-hot charcoal inside. No fancy electric cords to get tangled. No steam spray. Just naked heat.
A tall elderly gentleman was poking through the items. He greeted me formally in his best English accent. We chatted for a minute or so, him asking me questions about my business here in Embu. “What do you want to buy?” he asked. “I like the look of the iron. How much is it?” The seller was an old lady, sitting in the shade behind her wares. The gent turned to her and they spoke in the local Embu language. “It is 970 Kenyan shillings,” he declared.
Usually, prices are rounded up to the nearest hundred shillings for muzungus. Quoting 970 KSh made me think it was genuine, with no markup.
“Look at the workmanship,” the elderly man said.
“I’m not impressed,” I replied, “The screws holding the handle on are very loose.”
“Pah, that’s nothing. Get a screwdriver and you will tighten them up in no time. You can buy one here, too.”
“It is very heavy, ” I said.
“All the better to press your clothes well. Solid steel.”
I wondered how long it would take to start leaving rust streaks on my shirts.
“Your woman will appreciate it,” he said.
“I don’t have a woman here,” I replied. “What about you?”
“I am a married bachelor,” he said, and we both burst out laughing.
I moved on. The mattress on my bed is very firm. I thought of buying another one “from the back of a lorry”. Literally. Does this remind you of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea?
Deeper into the market, the stench became overwhelming. A miniature digger was scraping up all the rotting vegetable matter which had been piled beside the overflowing skip. It wasn’t obvious where it was going to be dumped, but he was creating a clear area. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, wafting noxious vapours while he did so.
I moved on to the fruit. Two women were selling some brown, pear-shaped, hard fruit in a basket. “What is this fruit?” I asked. She looked blank, having no idea what I’d said. A well-dressed lady behind her said, “We call this one ‘pear’. Buy one for 20 bob.”
I said that the pears in my country are softer than this when they are sold. “Peel off the hard skin,” suggested the lady. “But it will still be very hard, impossible to eat,” I replied. “Then buy it for me and I will show you how to eat it,” she said.
“If I buy for 20 shillings, you will share the pear with me. And then you share my 20/- with her? Commission?”
“Ha! White man, we are not like this at all, just buy,” she said, guffawing with laughter.
I told her I wanted some ripe guavas and sweet oranges, and she pointed me in the right direction.
I must be getting Africanised again. I bargain for everything. I buy strange legumes like cowpeas, sugar beans and raw peanuts to roast in the oven. I am even beginning to know the difference between different types of local rice. I asked for the best quality and was shown some fragrant, fine-grained rice, reminiscent of Basmati. “How much is this?” I asked, holding up a handful. “It’s Pishori rice, 160 KSh a kilo,” the stallholder replied. “That’s too much,” I said. “Then buy the biryani rice, it’s just 120 KSh a kilo.” “But look at all the broken grains,” I protested. “It will cook better like this,” she replied. Codswallop.
We haggled a bit more and I agreed to buy a kilo. She scooped up two tinfuls of rice into my cotton bag and added another couple of handfuls. “Discount,” she said. “Can you weigh it for me, please?” She didn’t have her own scales, so she turned around and used her neighbour’s scales. As if to teach me a lesson, she then removed a handful of rice and handed me back the bag. I deserved that for doubting her touch.
She also had some fresh green French beans for sale, so I bought half a kilo, and she added another handful, to make me feel happier. Compounding my foolishness, I asked her neighbour how she knew the weight of the produce so accurately. “She’s been selling it for twenty years,” she said.
I waded through a swamp of cabbage leaves to the corner cafe for a cup of tea. I misread the sign – it wasn’t “Bates Motel”, but “Cates Hotel”. Psycho on my mind, I guess.