A trip to Maasai Market in Nairobi is always fun and I love it! A long time ago, in the 80-s, when I needed souvenirs to take back to Europe I used to go to Nairobi city centre, behind Uchumi (for those who know Nairobi it was opposite City Market), and find a lot of fascinating curios, batiks, carvings, nice bracelets, necklaces and lots of other interesting things. Loads of presents and gifts were purchased there and taken overseas over the years. Later, in the 90-s, the vendors had to move out as the site was to be developed, but they did not give up and started an open air market. Many years have passed since then and not many people would recognise that the well organised Maasai Market as we know it now, which takes place nearly daily in different locations throughout Nairobi, started from a few little stalls perched high on the rocks in the dust and fumes above the Globe Roundabout every Tuesday.
Nobody could tell me exactly why, but I think it is called the Maasai Market not only because in the beginning a few Maasai ladies saw the opportunity of selling their handicraft directly to tourists, but also because of the sheer burst of colours you see immediately when you arrive there – the colours of beautiful and vibrant Maasai ornate decorations which have become inspiration for many successful designers worldwide.
Over the years I watched local artisans getting more adventurous with their designs; they developed with time and were very susceptive to the needs and wants of a Western visitor. Colours were becoming brighter, patterns trendier and some beautiful pieces still take my breath away every time I visit the market.
I love things made of beads, they are my weakness. Inspired by the traditional Maasai beads, which you can also buy in the market, the artists create very bright and colourful items from small key rings to beautiful belts and necklaces, lovely baskets, place mats, coasters, candle holders and even lamp shades. I struck friendships with a couple of very nice business ladies who make things to my design and colour schemes and who now get referrals from me when our guests ask us to disclose the source of one or the other item they fall in love with. Curtain tie backs, candle holders, napkin rings, flower baskets, chameleons on the walls – you name it, we have it! Every time I go to Nairobi I cannot stop myself from ordering something and my two friends deliver the goods against a modest deposit and a lot of trust. Modern technology helps us communicate and while a sample is work in progress, there are a lot of photos and ideas travelling back and forth, before getting my final approval. They don’t let me down and I have no intention of letting them down so I have been their faithful customer for many years now.
I also love soap stone. It is such an interesting material which allows the artisans to make anything they want with it and which looks very attractive whether in natural colours or painted. It is delicate and brittle so you have to be very careful especially if you are taking it overseas, and is also quite heavy, but definitely one must have a few soap stone items in one’s living room. Whether it be a sculpture, an animal figure, a jewellery box, chess set or a fruit plate, it will look both solid and elegant at the same time. Soap stone is soft and when rubbed with water and a bit of sandpaper the edges become very smooth and rounded which gives it its fine finish. I saw beautiful coasters and jewellery boxes made of soap stone with vibrant embedded beads and guess what… Yes, I have those! We have had to replace our soap stone chess set twice now as our lovely guests would not leave without it and we did not have enough time to have it ordered for them, but we are happy as these sets are now proudly displayed somewhere in Europe spreading the word about Kenyan art.
Batiks are definitely worth mentioning. These beautiful paintings on cotton or silk are very colourful and present traditional scenes of village living, love between two people, gorgeous Kenyan landscapes, animals and some amazing abstract designs. Pictures and souvenirs made of straw and banana leaf are also very traditional and attractive. Kenyans are generally very talented; only the other day the gardener in our house in Nairobi made a fantastic wildebeest for my kids out of some dry palm leaves – he is definitely an artist by heart and keeps himself busy and us amused with his topiary, sculpting shrubs in to interesting designs all over our Nairobi garden.
Wood carvings are another source of admiration for me. You have to be strong not to be tempted to have a carved zoo in your house or to fill every corner with statuettes or masks – the variety is amazing, and the thought and skill put into some pieces are really incredible. Of course as with everything else you need to look carefully for a gem, as quite a lot are mass produced and are not of high quality, but when you see one – you will know it straight away!
Don’t get me started on beaded flip-flops, patch work or kikoys – all my friends, relatives and their friends have them. Kikoys are universal and are the best invention! The vibrant colours and designs will ensure that you will never think that you have enough. Beautiful straw handbags from Madagascar also have found their way into Maasai Market and are very popular, a few beaded decorations of your choice can be added while you wait and these additional touches will make them look even more attractive. The varieties of key rings now are endless and they are also beautiful inexpensive mementos of Kenya.
Tie-and-die dresses, kangas, kikoys and sisal handbags, quilts, beautiful costume jewellery with traditional elements, wooden birds, soap stone and beaded animals, metal sculptures, West African masks, drums, malachite figurines – they have it all, and new designs and ideas are constantly being introduced. The Maasai Market is an endless source of gifts, an example of small enterprise by a few entrepreneurs which grew into a big and successful operation, a place to make friends and find suppliers, to get inspiration from and admire the skill and imagination of some unknown artists whose craft will not look out of place in any modern art gallery or museum.
Some items are fun! Not much goes to waste and some kids fun toys are made of beer bottle tops or clay – a nice memento of being in Kenya and a tribute to some local artists who come up with these amusing items.
– Do not accept to be taken around the market by so called brokers – you will enjoy it more if you walk around at your own pace and negotiate your own price; you will definitely save money and will not be pushed into buying items you do not need
– Definitely do bargain! It is a tradition at the market, but keep in mind that a few shillings which might not make huge difference in your life will make a difference in someone else’s
– Do remember that most of the vendors are not the people who make the items, they are entrepreneurs, but they also work hard to make sure that their suppliers are kept busy providing income for their families
– If you need something you can always order it and agree to collect at a later stage. The vendors are always the same, they all know each other and they come to the same venue all the time, so they have no interest in cheating you. But deal only with the owner of the stand, pay a small “good will” deposit, exchange phone numbers and be assured that you will get your order as agreed
P.S. As Christmas is just around the corner as I am writing this, here is what you can get for stocking fillers or decorations.
I hope you enjoyed seeing this pictures and reading, I certainly enjoyed this particular blog entry as much as I enjoy visiting the Maasai Market in Nairobi! From Kenya with love!
If you want to know a little more about Nairobi, WikiTravel will help you – please read here