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A Trip to the “Shopping Mall”

By Colyn Alcock

The old song goes, “if you go down to the woods today, you better go in disguise.” Nobody mentioned the exhausting experience of shopping in Accra.

Take one oversized, humungous life-sized blender, tens of thousands of argumentative Ghanaian shoppers, a slightly greater number of street hawkers on amphetamines, cacophony of taxis blaring their horns on the burning tarmac, the occasional club wielding shirt-sleeved policeman and one White Boy anxiously clutching his bulging wallet under the west African sun, and you’ve got Makala Market, the main “shopping mall” of Accra.

Somehow, I’d been persuaded to take RR, one of the “posse” members to the market last Friday in order to buy her “one or two nice things.” West African mathematics is clearly a complex matter as “one or two” quickly multiplied itself into “strip the clothes rail clean until the obruni starts pulling a sour expression!” Clearly an inbred love of shopping is not limited to northern European women – let’s just say my wallet was left with burn marks, such was the pace at which the bill notes scorched out of them.

Oh well. We started the trip with the customary cheap taxi ride and the customary taxi driver argument over what was a good price. “My price good price” said the driver. “You know where to put your good price” said my tiny but ferocious companion, clipping him round the ear with her fan as he drove along. Ghanaians may not speak great English as we know it, but they certainly know how to get their point across. In this type of situation, either the posse member wins, or the taxi driver wins, the obruni (white person) shrugs and shells out.

Into the deep end without water-wings, RR led me through the human alleyways of hawkers crammed along the sides of the road (nothing so extravagant as a pavement around these parts), literally waving shirts and towels in your face and you pass. The noise is just this side of rock-concert level, half of Africa hawks and everybody talks. And of course you can buy a whole range of useful and fairly useless items, basically if you can’t buy it in Makala market, God hasn’t made it yet. The ubiquitous women sellers weave between the taxis, perfectly balancing their wares on their head – in case you are interested the trick is to fold a cloth into a kind of circle and place it between your head and the goods. (I’ve been secretly practicing in the sanctuary of my hotel room, but only succeeded in making a fool of myself and a mess of the floor). You’d think there was a competition for the most bizarre thing for Ghanaians to carry on their heads; its a very fiercely competitive field. Of course you get your baskets of pineapples, apples, bananas, etc. the occasional bird cage complete with rooster within, today’s washing and so on. The current reigning champions in my humble opinion could be the guy who seemed to be carrying 12 hardback encyclopaedias bound up with string (the original travelling saleman?), or his mate with a bag of cement (honestly!). But I think my vote has to go to the woman who sauntered along with a perfectly good 1950’s Singer sewing machine perched on her head. It was awesome!

Anyway, back to the shopping and the shredding of cedis (the Ghanaian currency, absurdly ranges between 1,000 and 20,000 denominations, nothing higher. This means taking a hundred dollars out of the bank means that you have to make sure you have enough pockets to cram them all in). RR led me into a side-street, up some crumbling concrete stairs and launched herself on garment buying like some 21st century Viv Nicholson (an extravagant pools winner for those who don’t know) Spend! Spend! Spend! It was one of the closest things to unadulterated joy I’ve ever seen as she pranced impishly from dress to dress, tossing shoes aside and admiring herself from every angle in the mirrors. Fortunately, the prices in Malaka are so cheap they make dirt look over-priced – $10 for that gorgeous strapless white evening dress, $5 for a pair of jeans, chicken feed for cosmetics and accessories (though I’m still not sure what a girl from a small Togo village could use a beige plastic handbag for, if not bashing crocodiles over the head). Oh well.

To be fair to my shopaholic pal, she did treat me to a very nice bone ring and a necklace with a pendant in the shape of Africa. “I want to buy this for you”, she says. It’s “very nice” I say, waiting “so give me money to pay it.” Oh well. I finally called a halt to proceedings when one enthusiastic shop assistant piped up “that dress very nice, your husband likes it.”

Anyway, Makala market is worth whatever price you want to pay, just for the visit alone. Of course everything is negotiable, as a rule of thumb the “last price” you pay is around 75% of the one that the vendor originally stated. Try it in your local department store! By European standards bargains abound and, as I’ve seen, its possible to fill a wardrobe for almost next to nothing. But I think I’ll go by myself next time.