The black lips jumpsuit or the hot pink power suit? Tough choice.
By now the novelty of the Amy Childs dress in Uganda was wearing off. Every mzungu in the country had borrowed it at one time to have a go. I had spotted a very similar, no doubt cheaper version from the back of the boda at a roadside boutique as William was driving me one morning, but couldn’t be bothered risking my life trying to get to it. Oh how I’d changed.
No, not really, as when my two friends Lucy and Sue suggested that we go to Owino Market, aka St Balikuddembe, apparently Uganda’s largest market in Old Kampala, one Saturday morning I jumped nearly as high as Mt Elgon.
The Kampala high street wasn’t the same as the UK high street. A makeshift store on a busy dusty road was worlds apart from Whistles Hampstead Heath.
When you did browse inside a highway store most of the time you were faced with a choice between a pink power suit or a black jumpsuit with bright pairs of lips emblazoned on it, which was the nightmare I found myself in one day.
If you did see something that you liked, you’d have to get your driver to slam on the brakes pretty quickly, otherwise you’d probably never see it again.
Twice I’d attempted to buy a new dress. Once was on the way to Speke Resort at Munyonyo (which was also when the aforementioned iPad smashing incident happened, which led to the whole shopping expedition to be aborted). Another was at Wandegeya in town. Both displayed cute Roland Mouret style galaxy numbers and shifts. I’d even spotted a Breton Zara dress at Wandegeya.
Both times I’d gone in optimistically, not minding that much stripping in a makeshift changing room on the roadside that didn’t do anything to shield my modesty, as scores of Ugandans drove past.
Both times I left empty-handed and disappointed. Nothing ever ended up fitting properly, no matter how many times it was taken in or let out.
There was Alma and Amy Boutique around the back of Ham Towers near Makerere University. On one side of the sign someone (not me, I’d swear on the bible) had ripped off the ‘Alma’ so it was now only Amy Boutique. I’d tried on the green polka dot V-neck dress in the window but that didn’t even work.
I’d heard a few bad things about Owino, from both Ugandans and fellow mzungus. Namely that it was crawling with pickpockets. One friend claimed she’d been groped by one seller who also pinched her on the bum, while another hawker put her hand down her top in an attempt to try and pull her notes out.
“Best time to go are morning hours,” my friends at Guide2Uganda advised.
“Dress simple, take care of your purse. Watch out for petty pickpockets. Ask a friend to accompany.”
I wondered what they meant by “simple” dress. I was wearing a lot of Mr Price, the Ugandan version of Primark which boasted that good times were guaranteed, these days. Would that do?
“Don’t wear short skirts, wear a pair of closed shoes,” Guide2Uganda elaborated.
Another Ugandan friend warned me to “be ready to push and be pushed in those narrow paths”.
“Mind your bag,” they said.
“If you visit during a sunny day, the air is stuffy with some kind of dust flying.
“But pray that the rain doesn’t find you there.”
With all the dirt, I imagined if the rain did find me there things may end up like Glasto.
The tips flooded in.
“It’s best you don’t go alone. Avoid having large denominations, break them down,” another Ugandan said. I wasn’t exactly planning on staging the running of the bulls in Owino, but I’d take his advice.
I had however also heard some good things about the market.
My boda driver William had been sporting a blue pinstripe shirt one morning which he said he’d picked up there, and he looked “smart” as the Ugandans said. I’d told him so.
According to the Lonely Planet, Owino was known for its “wide range of second-hand clothes from Europe, Asia and the USA.”
One friend had purchased several nice vintage pieces.
And a friend of a friend had, to the amazement of the entire female mzungu population of Uganda, snapped up a Marcs Jacob skirt there for about 4 GBP, or so she’d boasted.
“They don’t know what they’re selling!” she’d exclaimed hysterically.
Once I’d heard that my mind had been made up. To Owino I would go.
I would happily put up with a bit of bum pinching for a 4 GBP Marc Jacobs skirt.
At worst, I’d end up with a gomesi. I was actually now dreaming of picking up a green gomesi to wear to the Royal Ascot Goat Races, one of the highlights of Uganda’s social calendar.
To build up some energy for our shopping trip I went to the Mengo Backpackers for lunch just before it that Saturday.
I’d never actually stayed there, so couldn’t rate it accommodation wise but was dying to see the dorms though to see if I could compare it to the Red Chilli Backpackers out of town, which my hero Jane Bussmann had mentioned in her bestselling book The Worst Date Ever.
“The Red Chilli was perfect. Nothing about it said, ‘You must be broke and rubbish’,” she’d written in one chapter while staying there.
I didn’t know if anything about the Mengo Backpackers said you were rubbish. However when you’d never stayed a night there but the bar staff knew you by name because you were constantly showing up for dinner, I guess you could be considered broke or at least cheapish.
I was still really keen to try the vegetable quiche and pizza although I hadn’t once been there when it had been available (despite remaining on the menu) and this day was no exception.
“It’s the power,” the woman behind the bar explained.
But there was only so long you could use the power as an excuse for in Uganda, especially when it came to a vegetable quiche.
After finishing my salad I got a boda to CafeJavas Mego, another favourite haunt, where I was meeting Sue and Lucy.
I’d had a second minor boda accident the afternoon before, again when the motorbike was stationary. Why did this keep on happening?
William had picked me up from home and driven to his boda stage before stopping and going to get his jacket left at a kiosk, leaving me stitting on the bike on the side of the road.
I had turned my head to the right and was mid-sentence in a conversation with Vianni, his friend and probably the mzungu’s second most preferred driver, when a concerned look swept over his face.
Suddenly I’d stacked it on the boda while the boda wasn’t moving and I still had my helmet on, much to the amusement of ten or so boda drivers who’d seen me along with people piling into matatus on the roadside. Luckily though my leg wasn’t trapped.
“Sorry, sorry,” William said, sheepishly, rushing over to me and standing the bike up.
It was as equally embarrassing as puling someone down on top of me while trying to get on a boda, but it didn’t stop me from recounting the entire ordeal to Sue now that we were trying to hail one to take us and Lucy to Owino.
“Amy,” she said slowly before pausing. I knew she was going to tell me how clumsy I was.
“You’re so resilient on a boda.”
I was stoked. It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said.
Unfortunately I wasn’t as good as negotiating fares and getting the three of us to Owino market that day ended up involving more organising than the D-day landings. The fact that Uganda was playing Senegal in the soccer at Namboole Stadium on home turf, which was rare I’d been told by a local, made it even busier. The streets were full of boda drivers blowing vuvuzelas and flying the national flag.
By the time we eventually reached Owino, on two separate bikes, I was more than ready for some retail therapy.
If only I’d had a crystal ball though and been able to see into the future, well just the next day, when the Sunday Monitor would print a story titled “Tricks to lure the customer; Inside the mind of a trader” for which they’d sent a reporter to Owino. (Of course though even if I’d had a crystal ball, it would have been highly unlikely that the power was off). Below I’ve listed what the Monitor said might happen on a trip to Owino, and what actually happened in my case:
What the Monitor said – “It’s common for sellers to use words such as ‘saizi yang’ and even the ‘outrightly sexy’. It’s not clear whether this is to entice buyers over or to simply make fun of them.”
What actually happened – I didn’t know what ‘saizi yang’ meant with to begin with. When I asked a Ugandan friend (male), he told me that it was a “gross term lol. Whoever said it to you meant you’re his size. He finds you cute, he fancies you, wants you! Lol.” I wasn’t called ‘saizi yange’ at Owino, but as I entered the market from Nakivubo Road a hawker yelled out, “Hello my wife-to-be”. Yes really. Why does this always happen in the wrong country?
What the Monitor said – “You cannot anticipate a given price. That is like betting on the weather on Lake Victoria shores where the sun can burn the smile out of you one minute, then, next minute it is thunderstorms with lightning, completely unpredictable.”
What actually happened – Understatement of the year. The price of a fluro blue boy-leg 1950s swimsuit went down quicker than a led balloon, all the way from 50,000 Shs to just 15, 000 Shs within a matter of seconds, no doubt as it had been ridiculously inflated in the first place. Shame it was about six sizes too big.
What the Monitor said – “Soon you will feel a hand tap your arm. Then you will feel another, and another, and many others. This is simply ‘showing the customer what you have got,’ says Joseph Okello, a trader within the market, who sells radios, torches and open shoes. No, he does not think it is the rude act of invading a complete stranger’s personal space that you probably think it is.”
What actually happened – M7’s (Museveni’s) entourage has nothing on this lot. I was grabbed and pulled, not just by a man but also by my own sex, after I said no to the oversized swimsuit, until I broke free.
What the Monitor said – “In and around Owino market, there are many often-colourful dramatisations used while touting. Some traders repeat their shouts all over again, making an attempt at poetry as they form a rhyme. It almost becomes a song, in a funny awkward way, thanks especially to a twisted intonation. Some record these chants on a CD or audio tape and play them over and over again. The touting usually comes with catchphrases designed to hook the ear. A trader could ring out words like ‘Shirts cost 2,000 Boona Bambaale, Boona Bambaale’ or another could say, ‘Shirts cost Shs 2,000, I do not want any doctors’ meaning he does not want customers who only check the products but do not buy, like doctors do.”
What actually happened – I did not hear the words “Boona Bambaale” or anything about a medic. Rather, all I heard was “It fits”. This applied to whether I was struggling to get the item of clothing over my head, or whether I could also fit most of Dadaab in it.
What the Monitor actually said – “The most common place where a customer’s looks are a determinant on how a trader will approach a customer are shoe stalls. A trader at one such stall agrees that the kind of shoes a buyer wears determines how he treats them, but only so that he knows what kind of shoe to suggest for them. ‘I look at the shoes you are wearing and see if I can sell you something similar,’ he says. That alone is an indication that a customer’s appearance means a lot in Owino market. If you buy a pair of trousers while dressed in jeans and a t-shirt at Shs 20,000, do not return in a Valentino designed suit, even within an hour, expecting to buy it at the same price.”
What actually happened – I left my Valentino at home, but was wearing a pair of Mr Price flats. The soles were falling apart. I was not asked to buy any shoes, even when standing near several shoe stalls. Funny that.
VERDICT: There were no Marc Jacobs pieces and I went home empty-handed. Shopping at Owino market was a lot different to shopping at Banana Republic, I’d discovered. It took a lot of patience. Spotting something that you liked, having it fished down by a trader (as most of the time items were displayed up high on the racks), then trying it on either over top the clothes you were already wearing or with half of Kampala peaking through a makeshift change room took a lot of time and effort and was frustrating. And it didn’t matter whether what you were modeling for the sellers was six sizes too big or six sizes too small, you’d always be told “It fits.”
Despite my disappointment though I vowed to return to Owino soon. I was determined to crack the Kampala high street.