After four days of intensive briefings, my head was bursting with data. And more questions. I needed some time for the information to bed in. I needed to put some flesh on the bones. I needed to get to know Embu. And the best way to understand a place is to visit the market.
Early on Saturday morning, four of us jammed into a taxi and drove down the hill to the market area. There are four markets in the centre of town. The first is the fringe of the matatu (bush taxi) bus station. There are shops – butchers, hairdressing salons, restaurants, general stores – and stalls selling snack food, huge hands of green bananas and leafy vegetables.
We worked our way through the tangled mass of matatus, already jammed full with people and produce but waiting for just one or two more passengers to maximise profits. “Never trust a man with a smile,” proclaimed the logo on one taxi. Maybe that would be good advice for buyers at the market.
In the centre of the matatu parking area, there stands a massive billboard advertising cane spirit. This is potent stuff, but costs just a bit more than a bottle of Tusker beer. There is a big demand for spirits in Kenya. On the television news this morning, Diageo / East African Breweries announced it was stepping up production. Meanwhile, illicit stills produce cheap rotgut which occasionally causes methanol poisoning.
At the corner of the parking area, there is a small muddy snicket leading to the covered market area. A first glance, this looks like a sea of jumbled produce and people. There may be an underlying logic to the arrangement, but it was lost on me. Sellers pile their tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, avocados, bananas and whatever else they have, on their stalls. There appears to be no demarcation between one stall and the next. Indeed, some stalls don’t have scales, so they pass baskets of food to their next door neighbour to be weighed. And if they don’t have the correct change, they will “bum a few bob” from an old lady across the aisle.
Never buy what you see at first is a good maxim. Take your time and cruise the market, looking for the best quality produce. Avoid the temptation is to buy lots of stuff at one stall, spread your shillings around the community of producers.
There is another covered area, past the fishmongers, perhaps selling better quality goods. Up the hill, there is an open area selling massive cabbages, maize and bulky items.
I am always a bit wary when the price of items on a stall is always 100 shillings (equivalent to a US dollar). If I want to buy something there, I will try to bargain a discount or get a few extra items added to my shopping bag for free.
What did I buy? Courgettes, avocados, black and green, papaya, butternut squash, potatoes, sweet purple onions, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, oranges, tangerines, watermelon, pineapple and passion fruit. The stallholder explained that the green passion fruits are good for indigestion. It transpired that they are sweeter and less acidic than the darker variant, so they don’t provoke indigestion so easily.
Plastic bags were outlawed in Kenya last year, so I brought cloth carrier bags with me. We lugged our purchases back to the taxi so they could be dropped off at the house with two team members, while I explored more of the town with N.