Sometimes wandering down ethereal shopping aisles doesn’t inect the necessary retail therapy hit. Sometimes you’ve got to get out there and feel the stuff for real.
Hat needs shirts for school. We’ve trawled intangible shelves at M&S and Mango. But she doesn’t find enough of what she needs. Mitumba beckons.
Mitumba literally translates as bundles; second hand gear that arrives in Africa baled in plastic. The rag and bone men of old morph as high street charity shops and store seconds. Stuff that’s not as needed in the wealthy west so everything – from socks to babygrows to jeans to curtains – is bound is plastic, loaded into containers and set to sea. Here, in East Africa, it disembarks as lucrative business. Vendors buy up the bales and sell the items individually. The opening of a new bundle in the market is cause for celebration; women ululate and crowd around to clap, applauding the revealing of dozens and dozens of bras, some grey and huge so that when they are hung from stalls they’ll swing as hammocks.
So, slathered in sunblock (for we are going two hours down the hill to the land of dust and sunshine) and armed with bottles of water (mitumba is thirsty work) Hat and I head off to shop.
You need to have stamina for this. My dear friend Annabel would have commented, ‘you must be strong for mitumba’. And she was right: this is three shredded wheat work. Hat is a good shopper for she knows precisely what she wants, no humming hawing vacillations: ‘no Mum, that’s gross’ she tells me shortly; no time is wasted.
We rifle through jeans hung on makeshift hangers wound of wire; you need to be careful when peeling a garment off lest the wire flick up and poke your eye out. We dig amongst heaps of blouses; there must be a method to the excavation: ‘you start at that end, I’ll start here’. And we meet in the middle. Haggling is imperative. I pluck a diamond from the rough. That’s 7 000 shillings the vendor tells me. Hat’s eyes widen, ‘Mum’, she hisses, ‘that’s only two pounds!’. I hiss back, ‘don’t look keen’. Nope I say, and nonchalantly toss the blouse back into the Josephandhistechnicolourcoat mound, ‘5 000 shillings’. Sometimes the seller will accept with alacrity (in which case you know you’re still paying over the odds). Sometimes she – usually a she, and the ladies are best, occasionally it’s a he and they’re not nearly as much fun to deal with – will suck her teeth and we’ll bat the price about a bit, back and forth, over pence. Ridiculous, I know, but this is business, this is biashara, this is the way it works.
There are other mitumba rules, apart from the necessary wrangling:
1. Check the pockets. ‘For money?’ Hat asks me amazed, and furiously begins to inspect every seam and furrow in the item. No. For holes. Nobody wants to mend an item that cost them a buck fifty for god’s sake. That said, checking pockets one day yielded eight whole dollars, soft and crumpled and creased from who knew how many months secreted away. My shopping paid for itself that day
2. Check the zips. I don’t want to have to invest in a new one that cost twice the price the jeans did in the first place
3. Check the labels, not because Brand is King, but because this is where the item’s wear and tear is most evident; too many wash cycles and you can’t see what size it is or who designed it.
So Hat and I return home, pink faced and dust laced, with a basket full of spoils. Including the softest black leather jacket which we fight over: ‘oh look Hat’, and I indicate the clearly legible label, ‘it’s made from little baby New Zealand lambs’. Euugh, that’s horrid, says Hat, ‘poor things!’. The jacket’s mine. Two of the shirts, for which we paid 3 bucks a piece, retail online, I discover later, at more than 100 dollars each.
There is nothing in the world so satisfying as a bargain.