Last Saturday, I took an overcrowded matatu to the Central Business District to meet Stephanie at the pancake and waffle-serving café, Java House. Although we are the same age, Stephanie is Kiva’s “Field Support Specialist” for Anglophone Africa, and my best resource in Kenya. The official Kiva title she carries is well deserved: Stephanie has spent two years in East Africa, is fluent in both the language and cultural norms of Kenya, and has even started a small fair trade bag company benefiting women in the slums of Mathare. Lucky for me, Stephanie is also a lot of fun and has generously taken the time to share with me both her knowledge and friends.
Our first stop of the day: shopping at the Maasai Market. Before heading to Nigeria to forge a new Kiva partnership, Stephanie wants to purchase a few pairs of earrings. After just a short walk from the city center, we come to what is essentially a parking lot filled with dozens of carefully placed blankets covered in wood carvings, jewelry, scarves, drums, bags, and clothing. Colorful negotiations take place and excited sellers call out to us as we walk through an entrance, joining the mayhem. Stephanie lays down some ground rules: “Don’t say anything. Don’t express interest in any items. If you want something, touch my elbow. I will negotiate for you so you can see how it’s done. The price we will pay is actually about 10% what they will ask for.”
Though I consider myself a skilled frequenter of foreign craft markets, I defer to Stephanie. She leads me to the front left corner of the market, where a man sells hundreds of earrings from a wood and mesh board. I touch her elbow, whisper the quadrant in which my targeted earrings sit, and listen to the back and forth exchange. The transaction ends with a hearty handshake, and we move on to the next area of interest. Many of the crafts scattered throughout the market are ones that I’ve seen before in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Stephanie tells me that most sellers here are middlemen, either importers from other parts of Africa or individuals that travel to small villages and collect pieces from women, returning a very small portion of the profits to the artists. We navigate the narrow paths for a half hour, acquiring a few other items, before returning to the normalcy of the downtown Nairobi streets.
In the future, I will make an effort to purchase directly from the source if possible. Many of my borrowers are involved in the creation of bags, clothing, and other handicrafts; and although this was fun, I’d rather patronize them directly.
- With Steph, shortly after my scarf purchase. Scarves of every color and design were available, yet I somehow managed to make a decision in only a few minutes. As I walked away, however, I realized I had chosen a scarf that was made in Thailand, not Kenya.
- Maasai Market
- My new earrings