Thursday, April 8

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Shopping on the street

A lot of things terrified me upon arrival in Kenya. Nairobi. The driving. The water. The food. Even shopping at a supermarket. I was scared of holding up the line while trying to figure out how much a coin was worth and grabbing mouthwash when I really wanted shampoo.

That's to say nothing of shopping on the street. Then the horrors centered on having to bargain with kiosk keepers who would lean in too close and being tackled by international agents after accidentally buying a knock-off not made at the companies' official factories in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Kind of pathetic, I know.

I got over it. It took nine months.

Realizing how well the average Kenyan dressed was a key feature in this change. You pick a random man off the street, and he will almost certainly be wearing a buttoned collared shirt. Not a bad chance he'll also have on a jacket. Pick a woman, and she'll either have a dress or slacks paired with a blouse. Their clothes may be sun bleached from being used every other day for the past five years, but they take pride in their appearance. Maybe it's a reaction against their single-room, concrete-walled homes and only-slight-improvement offices, I don't know. The point is they have to get those clothes from somewhere, and I feel pretty confident that most of them aren't paying a thousand a shillings for a shirt at Ukwala and Tusky's.

That got me to dawdle the next time I passed by the parked van with pressed shirts falling out of it. Then the second, far more important half of my about face with regard to street shopping occurred. The clothes were dirt cheap. I've thrift stores twice as expensive as Kenyan street clothes. I've seen few hand towels cheaper. The only place reliably cheaper than the Kenyan street was the clothing room at House of Charity, and that's only because we were giving those away.

So I've spent a couple of days this week wandering around the many street offerings Nakuru has. I walked slowly past construction where entrepreneurs hung shirts and jackets off the corrugated steel walls that separate the site and street. I passed through alleys hemmed on both sides by tables of shoes and underwear. I stopped at a few kiosks cobbled together from scrap wood and plastic tarp. I bargained. I bought some shirts. I think I look good in them.

At some point, the question "Where do all these clothes came from?" must be answered. The truth is I don't know, though I desperately want to. Where are these people getting designer clothes? No joke, I've seen Dolce & Gabbana in kiosks. I've also seen Kennel Club shirts. It's not like they naturally come from the same distributor. It's not like they're being sold by independent business people either. They are organized. It's not just that some only sell shirts and some only shoes. It's that some kiosks only sell blouses and some only long-sleeved collared shirts and some only soccer jerseys. If you want shoes, you better know whether you want black dress shoes, soccer cleats or sandals because the kiosks don't mix and match. Someone has to be organizing all of this.

First guess is World Vision. I don't know who else could provide such a stunning variety of clothes from Relay for Life T-shirts through to oversize American Eagle polos. At the very least, they admit of the possibility on their Web site, but I don't buy that there are no local clothing economies here to compete with the import donations. Just done the road from the center is a blanket factory. Don't tell me they can't make clothes, too. It's not like America wants to buy Kenyan clothes. They may as well buy their own.


Tom said...

So, do you suppose you could pick up a few tuxedos in Kenya? That might be a great way to save a few bucks on the wedding! That would be a great way to add a touch of Kenya to the wedding festivities.

Please, as you have been trained to do, take everything I say with a shaker of salt. Peace out!


Chris said...

You know, I actually suggested that to Demetra since it's cheaper to buy a tux here than to rent in the States. She was less than impressed.