Masai Market

Late in the afternoon Mother of Niece Tatu asked The Family whether we needed to take anything with us on the trip we planned the next day. We’d had very little sleep the previous night, and I was forcing myself to stay awake until the night to adjust to the local time. Walking about would be the perfect way to keep awake, so I hoped that the question would result in a long expedition to which I could tag along.

A large part of the expedition was a visit to a Masai market. We were to find later that it is a Nairobi staple. There are several of these markets; a large one travels to a different mall every day. We spent part of the evening in the Diamond Plaza shopping complex where a smaller one sits a few days a week. The sight of a large variety of semi-precious stones ensured that I wouldn’t feel drowsy for a while. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I realized that the interesting and violent geology of the rift valley would be the source of a large variety of such stones.

I thought I would look for a kikoi or shuka. The kikoi is an extremely versatile tectangle of hand woven cloth which can be used as a lungi or a shawl, or folded over into a backpack or a turban. If you have seen photos of Masai wearing a red blanket, then you’ve seen a shuka. The Family instantly realized what a wonderful thing a kikoi could be, and supplanted me as the main customer.

I wandered off to look at the other handicrafts. These are all produced in little workshops at home, something that we would call a cottage industry in India. This very Gandhian model of economy now produces a huge variety of objects for the large tourist trade that Kenya has. I loved the polished wooden kitchenware with the beautiful zebra themed highlights. The prices that they go for are so small that you wonder about the cost of living in Kenya.

I’m sold on giraffes. When I looked at the painted wooden giraffes on display here I knew they could not be Rothschild’s giraffes, since they did not have the white socks characteristic of the species. Were they Masai giraffes then? I looked at the long ears and resolved to keep this feature in mind when I got to see them in the wild. Of course all these are stylized representations of the animals, so it was possible that certain features are exaggerated or removed.

The stalls were just a piece of cloth laid on the ground with the wares displayed on top of them, just as in street markets across Asia. The tourist trade is often drawn off into shops inside malls where exactly the same things are sold at a premium. We saw more tourists in those places than in these Masai markets. Economic theory fails to explain this. The result is that the primary producer, the people who make and sell these things at Masai markets, earns much less than the middleman who sells them in bigger shops at malls.

I wandered over to a vendor who was selling etched glass. The baobab and acacia trees, the lions, zebras, and buffaloes, were beautifully rendered. I asked the lady selling it whether she did it herself. “No,” she said, “this is done by a mzee.” MONT explained that mzee literally means an old man, but can be used as a respectful term for anyone. I promised the lady that I would be back later to buy something from her. This first expedition was just scouting the market. The Family had also decided to postpone the buying of kikoi. We moved on.

Naive art

I find that there is something touching about people who turn to art late in their life. On a weekend’s trip to the Western Ghats, just outside Mumbai, we were in an open dining space crowded with wooden sculptures. I made a joke about the wooden poses that the sculpted figures were in. The Family found them quite interesting. So I looked at the horse and the seated warrior carefully. True enough, the proportions were wrong, and bodies had too few joints. But it was interesting where the artist had put his attention. The face has minimally delineated, but the turban was carefully shaped. The head of the horse had received less attention than its shoulders. In fact, the body of the horse looked unreal, but had clearly been shaped with attention.Carpenter turned artist

I met the artist later (photo on the right). Communication was difficult because we spoke each others’ languages badly. He had been a carpenter all his life, but had recently started making these pieces. The shapes are dictated by the pieces of wood that he finds. He described what kinds of odd pieces of wood had gone into the sculpture of the horse and armed rider. He doesn’t always recover the money that he puts into buying the wood, but he economizes because some of the wood is not usable in other ways. I could not ask him about his motivations, and why he felt he needed to express himself in this new way. These are questions which plague a blogger, and it would have been nice to get answers from someone similar.

Handicrafts in Myanmar

Burma has wonderful handicrafts. A popular destination like the teak bridge across the Irrawaddy river in Amarapura is full of shops for tourists: much of it street food and t-shirts. But among them are shops selling wonderful hand-carved wooden objects, like those you see in the featured photo.

Man polishes masks in Amarapura in Myanmar One very attractive aspect of these shops is that they seem to be direct sellers. The person who owns the shop sells his own work. This is such a refreshing change; over most of the world there is a whole chain of commerce which claims brings an artist’s work to us. This chain adds no value, but only cost. The past circumstances of Myanmar have forced a change to this system. One hopes that it remains so.

We loved the masks which you can see by clicking on the photo above.