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Shopping in Kinshasa

May 12, 2012

We have made two fun shopping trips so far.  (Besides groceries for me and supplies/tools for Matthew, of course.)  I shall share our wares with you!

May Day

May Day is a holiday here in the Congo.  I think it is in a lot of places.  So, the guys have a day off at the hanger.  We went with another MAF couple to head downtown to what is called the Ivory Market.  If you know anything about Africa’s history, you don’t have to imagine why it is called this.  You would be happy to know that ivory is very difficult to find (and probably wouldn’t make it through customs, thus it is not worth buying) and bone has replaced it in the market.  We thought going on a holiday would be a busy day, thus making ourselves less conspicuous.  We were wrong.  We were the only people there besides one other couple.  Ugh!  Every person wanted to sell to us!  And, because this market does cater to foreigners, they all know just enough English to get you to buy something.  I didn’t feel any pressure by them, but I don’t think my feelings were shared very well.  The thing that we thought was most unique about the market (besides the local goodies) was that each booth offered something different.  It wasn’t the same four things over and over.  Yes, some booths had duplicates, but each booth displayed something new.

Our first purchase was some local paintings.  We talked them down to 5 for $40.  These are real paintings on cloth, not reprints.  You can even get them customized and delivered to the Commercial Centre (where we shop within walking distance of our house).  I am hoping to get one more in particular, but another day when perhaps I can speak the language a little better.  Matthew negotiated this deal.

Sunset on the Congo River

Day and evening scenes

Slightly larger painting, with a lot of color


I was at a different booth insulting some poor merchant with my lowball offer.  But, hey, what do I have to lose, right?  He wanted FAR too much for his trinkets (that I really really wanted, but he couldn’t know that) and I was only willing to pay so much.  We agreed on $15 for the three things, instead of his initial offer at $15 EACH.  Win!

Okapi and giraffe. Haven’t yet seen the okapi? Google image – go!

Fish bottle opener – the Cokes here are all glass bottle with caps. Very old school and requires a bottle opener. Why not a fish?


Fabric Shopping

The fabric here is classic African prints of intriguing patterns and bold colors.  I really wanted some local skirts and have learned that wearing the local fabrics will be yet another gesture of goodwill toward the Congolese people.  Nifty!

So, a neighbor across the street was planning a fabric shopping day and invited me and another MAF lady along for the ride.  Boy, was it a ride!  An exciting ride of the gritty downtown/big city fun that Kinshasa can be, with all of the dangerous elements that make it a true adventure.

She drove (because she’s a third generation Congolese missionary, was born here, knows Lingala as well as she speaks English and driving here doesn’t scare her at all).  She also brought her two sons, ages 11 and 19, who are Congolese and are adopted.  They were going to help keep us safe.

The part of town that offers the best fabrics is also the part of town where the pick pockets and muggers have perfected their craft.  Mundele (white people) are great targets, so it’s best to have a few guards, if you will.

She also hired a guide, someone she had obviously worked with many times before, who would guide us to the shops, help us determine if the fabric was of good quality and a good deal and offer yet another presence of safety.  His name was Vikki.

We parked inside a fence with a small compound of buildings, in what was obviously a deal Becky, the person taking us shopping, had made with friends who owned this lot.  It is not safe to park and leave your car.  Anywhere.  Can you imagine that in the states?  I mean, car break-ins are common and locking your car is a good idea, but we leave our cars unattended constantly.  One must have someone watching the vehicle when it is parked and unoccupied, whether that’s in a gated parking lot, a vehicle attendee hired by the local store, or a street kid you’ve paid only half what he will get if he keeps your car safe.  So far, on my time out alone, I’ve used a driver.  His name is Pepe.  He’s great.  (And we don’t have a personal vehicle – MAF has loaner cars.)

Just outside this fence were a few ladies with tables selling fabric.  We stopped and stared.  Then I made the rookie mistake of pointing one out.  The lady jumped up, grabbed it, and showed me what a beautiful color it was.  Black with bright flowers in the most basic colors.  I loved it!  She wanted a bit more than store prices, but I’m happy to pay a bit more if I feel like I might be supporting someone’s livelihood.  However, I didn’t have a lot to spend, so I asked Becky to translate that I liked it, but would wait until I was finished shopping to make my final decision.  And off we went, walking toward downtown

The rain before had made the streets a muddy, chaotic mess and my flip flops weren’t helping.  However, we navigated the narrow alleys and crowded streets and finally stepped into our first fabric shop.  I do apologize for not having pictures, but it is taboo and even illegal in some circumstances to take pictures, so it’s not worth the risk.  This fabric store was about 1000 square feet and had their generator running, so it was cool inside (the power was out downtown, common problem in Kinshasa).  The floor was covered with tables stacked with fabric, which comes in a standardized six-yard size.  Each table was a different brand and price.  The walls were plastered with fabric swatches, looped over poles, so that the story was almost dizzying with choices.

The colors and patterns made it almost impossible to choose.  I found a brown and teal one that I kept my eye on (Vikki insisted on holding it for me, as is the custom here).  I decided when it was time to leave that I did not love it, though.

Our next stop was one of those classic, third-world shops.  No generator, low doorway, high ceiling, only about eight feet wide, and most of that was taken up by stacks and stacks of fabric.  Becky explained that this shop was where most of the other shops and street vendors bought their fabrics.  What a humble source.  However, they would have the best price.  We spent a lot of time in the cramped, dark space of that store, carefully debating which fabrics were best.  Vikki took his time examining the quality.  I found two that I decided I must have.  One was tan with lime green papillions (butterflies) and the other was dark brown vines with shiny blue and lavender flowers with birds in them.

Our last store was the biggest and the brightest.  Because of the large footprint, their fabrics were spread out.  There was still a vast selection.  They even had a special section, behind a counter, that offered very expensive, “name brand” fabrics.  Instead of the $10-$15 per six-yard piece, they were $75-150 per six-yard piece!  Interesting fact: they were mostly printed in Holland, instead of locally.

As we walked back to the car, we took a different route and entered the compound where our vehicle was parked via a new gate.  I was contemplating buying that fabric I had seen first, since it was so different than the other two I had purchased.  No need to wonder, though, because the woman selling it showed up at our car once she realized we were back…with the fabric in hand!

Here is my bounty…

Now…to make some skirts!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Donna Resnick permalink
    May 12, 2012 0829

    What beautiful choices! Be sure to take pics of what you make with them.

  2. May 12, 2012 0829

    I love the Okapi and Giraffe! So cute!

  3. Judy Pankow permalink
    May 16, 2012 0829

    Love the beautiful prints! Love all the color!

  4. Katie Jo Long permalink
    May 25, 2012 0829

    Fabulous fabrics! Looking forward to pictures of the final products. How will you sew them, is there a sewing machine available, or will you sew by hand?

    • May 26, 2012 0829

      Several of the ladies have sewing machines, including the lady who normally lives here and she left it out for me to use!

  5. Ellada permalink
    September 4, 2017 0829

    I love all of them, and especially the one you bought last! 🙂


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