Craft Market Culture
Everyone knows I’m a sucker for unique earrings. I have a sick obsession that is likely inherited from my Aunty Karen’s need to collect broaches.
Last year in Uganda, I picked up at least a dozen different pairs of earrings from the craft market in Kampala. After realizing how excessive that was, I gave most of them away to my closest friends and immediate staff team.
Now living in Malawi, I have once again started to recollect jewelry from the craft market across from my office and I’m embarrassed to admit I plan to keep almost all my earrings.
Becoming a frequent shopper in the craft market has it’s benefits.
- Understanding the real cost of goods and improving your bartering skills
- Asking crafters to custom make something for you and your friends/family
- Finding amusement in watching ‘new’ mzungus get haggled and harrassed
- Making friends with unique individuals life Gift, Innocent, Chiko and John
- Having said friends step in when you’re being overwhelmed with sales pitches or walk you part way home when it’s getting late or people are being particularly pushy
A couple Saturday’s ago I walked down to the craft market just for something to do. A few weeks before my new friend Gift invited me to come by, not to buy anything but just to swap stories and learn how to play one of the traditional ‘board’ games so I had finally decided to take him up on it.
When I got to ‘his tree’ Gift wasn’t there but I was still warmly welcome by Chiko and the rest of the gang. Slightly hesitant, I stepped off the street and onto the little path that led past the displays of carvings and up to their own little under-the-tree-fort. They had a small walkman style radio and were listening to the football (soccer) match between Lilongwe and Blantyre, I was told Gift was actually at the stadium watching the game.
On Saturdays business is slow for the boys because most of the tourists are at the lake or out on some excursion.
I sat on a hand crafted chair in the shade with Ken, a tailor, Innocent, an ‘apprentice’ and John, a carver. There were a few other older men around who didn’t say too much but happily listened to our jokes and smiled.
Chiko, a rasta looking dude who is always wearing a combination of yellow, red, green and black and a large toque over his dreads even on the hottest days, was easily the most outgoing in the group. I met him on my very first trip to the craft market when I was surrounded by market men like a slab of high quality road kill among starving scavengers. Gift, the friend I had come to see on Saturday had come to my rescue that day and helped me find what I wanted and at a reasonable price. Chiko who had noticed me eying up some carvings, pipes, masks and paintings came to offer me something to smoke. I politely declined but we quickly built up a good rapport and became friends.
So, there I was sitting in a circle with some hilarious local guys a few Saturday’s ago; trade the shade tree for a shop and I could have been back in Alberta with the boys from my hometown. We got to talking on various topics but the one I found most interesting was:
Craft Market Culture
The craft market stretches about half a small city block long and kind of wraps around the corner of a heavy foot-traffic complex, in between a mall, a major mzungu hotel and various shops and restaurants. There must be at least 60 different craftsmen who sell everything from fabrics to carvings to jewelry to artwork.
There is no formal place in Lilongwe for them to set up shop and earn a living, but their work certainly deserves to be showcased and sent around the world in various suitcases. In the other local market which is much larger and primarily intended for groceries, some of the fruit and vegetable vendors actually have little shacks where they can keep their stuff. The craft market men (and yes, they are all men) have their items displayed on rock piles usually covered with cardboard or another repurposed material. The post office allows them the space on their perimeter of their lot and does not charge them rent.
According to Chiko the effort to form a craft market only started a few years ago with about a dozen locals coming together to form a committee. They have since grown and
each crafter contributes 500 kwacha (or about $1.25) a month to do business there. They all pay their dues to the committee and most of it goes to pay the three watchmen they hire to guard their stands at night. Some of the money goes to helping each other buy new files, chisels and other tools and some gets saved.
The crafters, who truthfully are all in competition with each other, really have a sense of community. I was told that if one of the craftsmen is involved in an accident, gets very sick or has a death in the family some of the savings will go to supplement his lack of income. A small handful of the experienced craftsmen, like Chiko, will also welcome some
of the underdogs to come up to their little area when there are buyers around and encourage the shoppers to buy from the young guys first as they need the money more.
Chiko, a charmer and true salesmen was narrating this craft market culture to me in between telling these underdogs to back off as today we were telling stories and making friends, not selling.
After a few hours of swapping stories and learning about the inner workings of this place I had come to love, I decided to take my fruits and veggies and head home. I had (as always) walked away with a bracelet. Chiko being the smooth talker he was, accompanied me as I gathered my groceries and the guys started teasing him in Chichewa.
I have to admit, this situation is easily the hardest to navigate. While I’m happy to make conversation and friends, I’m always uncertain just how to tell someone “please don’t help me or walk me home.” Chiko said he was just going up the road to grab a soda and it was along the same path as mine so in true gentleman fashion he took my heaviest bags and we walked on together.
He politely suggested we exchange numbers and while I was hesitant I obliged because I felt like declining would be a bad way to end a great afternoon. I also had my own selfish motivations of wanting to have a local I could text should I ever find myself wondering something about the city or a certain situation. Chiko bought his soda and walked me about halfway home. He admitted he was surprised, but pleased that I bought and planned to cook my own food, and that I was walking ‘so far’ with them to go home. I think I earned some street cred for chilling with the locals and trying to live like one too.
I’ve been back to the market twice since our Saturday chat, and while I’ve supported local entrepreneurs and artists, I also feel like I’m starting to make friends. Chiko and I have texted a few times and on my way home from work tonight Gift and I exchanged numbers and he too walked me part way home.
The craft market is a cool place to find out about Malawi, you meet people who have moved to Lilongwe from all different parts of the country. They always want to tell you where the best places to go swimming, fishing or dancing is. If you’re open to it, you can learn a thing or two like the language or where the cheap beer is.