Perhaps it is because I am in touch with my feminine side, I rather like shopping. I particularly enjoy rummaging through African markets. In Bradt’s Travel Guide to Swaziland, the market in Manzini features in the “Swaziland in Colour” section. I just had to take a look. Saturday morning at 8am, I set off to explore.
The very centre of the market is a two storey structure. Underneath, there is a wholesale market with vendors selling cartons of fruit, sacks of onions and potatoes. On top, there is a tourist market with trinkets, carvings, beadwork, traditional clothing, jewellery, paintings and batiks. Surrounding this building is a ramshackle arrangement of wooden stalls and some shops selling absolutely anything, but not much of it you’d want to buy. Out on the street there are more stalls, squeezing pedestrians onto a narrow sliver of pavement. Across the road, there is a new modern market area, with concrete tables and corrugated iron roofing. It looked sad, depressing and empty. Most shoppers were patronising the shanty stalls in the old market. Finally, there is a massive warehouse supermarket called “Boxer”, at which you can pick up any items you failed to find in the market.
I like quirky. I’m not interested in rows of similar detergents or cereals. My eye is drawn to the unusual. “What on earth are those?” I stopped in front of a couple of stalls on the street selling clay-coloured spheres, the size of cricket balls. Using sign language and pidgin English, I worked out that they were balls of ochre, which have a very special purpose. After a man has chosen a bride, he takes her home and the following day, he covers her in ochre. Meaning: “This one’s taken,” I suppose.
The juxtaposition of steel wool and toilet paper on one stall was interesting. Probably no hidden agenda here, but it reminded me of an advertisement for glyceryl trinitrate ointment, used in treating anal fissures, which featured a toilet roll made from barbed wire.
Next door, a lady was selling a skirt made of black and white lengths of plastic attached to a belt. She demonstrated how it swished to draw attention to a lady’s posterior. I am too miserly to afford WordPress Premium, so I cannot upload the video. Shame.
I walked inside the shanty town market, attracted by a familiar noise: the sound of coconut being grated. The tool for doing this is virtually the same all over the world. I still have one in my garage at home from the Solomon Islands. It consists of a solid plank of wood, upon which you sit, attached to a sturdy metal pipe, which has a serrated tip. It is used to remove the white flesh from inside half a coconut, rotating the shell a few degrees after a few scrapes. Again, apologies for the lack of video.
The row of shops in the market resemble a set of lockup garages. The first half dozen were occupied by tailors and seamstresses, knocking out fashionable tops in bright African cloth. Further along the row, the shops became more traditional. One shop was selling drums and goatskin bracelets. For a moment, I thought they might be handcuffs. After all, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is currently showing in the multiplex cinema at the Gables Shopping Centre in Ezulwini (which translates as Valley of Heaven, but in colonial times it was known as “Happy Valley”). The adjacent shop had tunics for sale made out of hairy goatskin. I am not sure if PETA would be happy with this, even though the goats were killed for their meat, not just their skins.
Finally I got to the traditional healers. On display in front, there were dried puffer fish, sea urchins, cowries, starfish and shark jaws. The healer makes medicine by pounding these in a pestle and mortar to make a powder. In the back of the shop, there were shelves storing different pieces of wood and bark. The patient adds bits of tree to boiling water in order to extract the active ingredients. Another healer had sacks of roots, seed pods and twigs from medicinal plants on sale, some of which had already been crushed to a powder.
The healers were happy for me to take photographs of their shops, but neither of them wanted to appear in the pictures. One offered to sell me something to give me “power”, “traditional Viagra”. I told him I didn’t need any, besides, I didn’t have a girlfriend.
“Oh, I can fix that. You must bathe in this special liquid and you will have girls flocking to you,” he replied. “Then, you will need power. I can give you both products for a special price.” Hmm, extract of Lynx?
“I am going to the second marula festival this afternoon,” I said. “I was propositioned five times at the last festival. I don’t think I’ll need your muti, Sangoma.”
“I’m not a Sangoma, throwing divining bones. I have proper traditional medicine.”
As I shook my head and turned to leave, he called after me, “Do you have any tablets for me, dokotela?”
“But you are a healer. Why do you need Western medicine?”
“Power is power, doc, wherever it comes from,” he said, hedging his bets.
My eye was drawn to a blaze of colour. Three ladies were weaving coloured plastic strips into shopping bags. “You can fold them for packing, only 50 Rand,” said the first lady. Sheila would not have been able to resist buying at least a couple for £3 each.
“I am impressed, but I’m working here for a year,” I told her. “I’ll buy some next January.”
“But I am hungry. I have not eaten breakfast. Please buy one of my baskets,” she pleaded, rubbing her ample stomach.
“I’ve got my rucksack until then, madam. Sorry.”
My next stop was the wholesale market. Almost all the produce on sale originated in South Africa. Tomatoes, peaches, plums, apples, grapes, tangerines and oranges, all looking delicious. Perhaps the beetroot, potatoes and onions had been grown in Swaziland. I was tempted, but the vendors were selling in bulk; I couldn’t even carry it back home, never mind eat it.
In the market parking area, men were selling loose apples “orf the back of lorry”. They offered me a taster. It was really good and I bought 10kg for 30 Rand (less than £2). They packed my rucksack full, so I couldn’t zip it shut. Not being packed carefully in cardboard boxes, the apples were not first class, and didn’t have those annoying plastic “Cape” stickers, but I was happy with a bargain.
Upstairs, there were no customers in the craft market. As a result, the prices were keen, but the only item which tickled my fancy was a metre-long, wooden jumbo jet with a broken tailfin and a family of warthogs painted on the fuselage. I thought about buying a batik, signed by Homo, for my newly wedded gay friends, but it wasn’t up to the high standard of art work decorating their 30th floor apartment in Chicago.
In the dilapidated stalls around the wholesale market, there were buckets full of sweet potato, taro, groundnuts and chillies. I left without making any purchases and crossed the road to see if the newly built market had more variety of foods. It didn’t.
The Boxer supermarket was playing loud dance music, so I couldn’t resist jiving around the aisles pushing a trolley to the funky beat. First I had to check in my rucksack, asking the clerk not to bruise the apples. I wanted to buy some bananas. In UK, most of the bananas we eat are one variety, Cavendish. But in Africa, there is more variety, in size, shape, colour and taste. Boxer had bananas on sale, but all their stocks had been sold.
I followed my nose to the butchery department. Something didn’t smell fresh. Just behind the glass counters selling ox spleen, chicken necks and intestines, butchers were hacking at meat with gay abandon and large cleavers. It was enough to turn one vegan.
The pharmacy shelves in Swaziland are interesting. They are quite open about advertising dubious products claiming to improve sexual performance and libido, both male and female. It looks more scientific than the traditional medicine in the market, but I didn’t see customers queuing up to buy it.
After buying some bread, it was time to leave. I had plans to go to the last Bugano (Marula) festival at Hlane Royal Residence in a few hours, and I wasn’t looking forward to a long hot walk up the hill with 10kg of apples on my back.
PS Confession: My guilty secret is buying fresh chips on Sunday morning at Pick’n’Pay, the “Waitrose of Southern Africa”. They even give you spicy seasoning with your salt and vinegar. The trouble is that the chips get cold and soggy quickly. Obviously, it is best to eat them while you shop and to disregard the strange look the lady on the till gives you when you show her the barcode on an empty bag.