After 3 visits to the Kimironko Market, we are by no means experts in successfully navigating this wild ride of capitalism and cultural immersion, but we are at least no longer overwhelmed merely by the process of parking the car. Kimironko is one of the largest markets in Rwanda and one of at least half dozen markets around Kigali where a wide variety of goods and services are sold. The shopping itself is a fun experience, which gives us the opportunity to accomplish a necessary task – buying food for the week – while engaging in a good form of family entertainment and practicing our still limited Kinyarwanda vocabulary (Muraho [hello] um…no I do not want a kilo of ground cassava leaves…what?). That said, it is easy to get too much of a good thing at the market, both in terms of the massive quantities of commodities that are available at prices that sometimes seem ridiculously low, and in terms of the potential for becoming exhausted and frazzled by the sensory overload of the whole enterprise.
I was not kidding about the overwhelming experience of parking the car on our first trip. When you turn off the main road into the dirt driveway that surrounds the market, you are immediately swarmed by young men directing you to various possible parking spaces and offering to watch your car and/or assist you with your shopping. We did not get to the point of asking what the fee was for guarding the vehicle. It is a fairly chaotic scene, not at all clear where you can or should legitimately park, or what the consequences of declining a guard might be. We ultimately decided that the best place to park is off the street a block or so from the market, in front of one of the many rows of shops. Sometimes there is a 100 franc charge for this, sometimes not. To us, this is well worth it to avoid the hassle, and makes it easier both to get in the market and to get out.
Depending on where in the world you have traveled and shopped in the past, the image you have of a “market” probably does not accurately represent Kimironko. The reality is something like a hybrid of a New England farmer’s market and a Super Wal-Mart, with garage sale style haggling as the primary means of setting prices. The range and quantity of goods available is truly astonishing, and it is unfortunately impossible to fully convey this with pictures; you cannot appreciate the sheer size and variety of the place without being there in person. The outer perimeter consists of a ring of numerous stalls selling basic household goods and low quality electronics, with several stalls offering to fix broken mobile phones. Also on the outer ring is a section for meat, poultry and fish, some in freezers and some hanging in slabs or sides from the ceiling. In particular, the beef products include all aspects of the cow one could want – meat, liver, stomach, intestine, brain. There is some overlap of animal products into central market area, including a section devoted to heaps of tiny dried fish and a few tables with eggs stacked in 2 foot tall pyramids. Keep in mind this is all in the barely shaded African heat. The central area also includes a section devoted to ground grains, but the main comestible attraction is the massive quantities of glorious farm fresh produce; more on that later.
Adjacent to the produce market are rows and rows of stalls organized into basic categories – clothing and shoes (some appear to be new, some used); kitchen implements, dishes and utensils; handcrafted items like woven baskets, banana leaf mats and wood carvings; beautiful African print fabrics; and a large selection of cheap plastic crap. In the area where the fabrics are available there are sewing machines lined up as far as the eye can see, most of them manned by a tailor who is ready to sew a garment to your specifications from the fabric you select.
Now back to produce. There is both order and chaos in the produce market. Potatoes are pretty much all in one back corner, bananas and other fruits are predominantly near the perimeter at the front, leafy green vegetables tend to be clustered in the middle and towards the back, etc. However many tables have a mix of different offerings – tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, garlic, avocados, peanuts, zucchini, pineapples…. No prices are posted for any of the goods in the market, and the mixture of products offered by any one vendor makes it impractical to comparison shop for one item at a time. Depending on the length of your list and your patience, you can either find a vendor offering good prices for several things you want, or wander from vendor to vendor looking for the very, very best of each item. I think my preference is a combination approach: I am willing to handle a lot of pineapples to find one that is in good shape at a good price, but the tomatoes are pretty great and inexpensive across the board.
In reality, you will probably not have to go it alone in making these choices. If you are at the market to buy fruits and vegetables, parking on the street outside does not by any means get you off the hook as far as fielding offers for assistance with your shopping. Inside the market there is another group of men and boys who enthusiastically approach you offering to carry your groceries and especially to help ensure that you get a good price. These personal shoppers in waiting are utterly relentless. No matter how many times and how firmly you tell them no, there is always at least one who will stick with you like a dog on a bone, pretty much interacting directly with the vendors and physically interjecting themselves in the entire food purchasing process, other than handling the money. They may quote you a fee for their services, but we found that if you really, really firmly decline help they will just say they will help you for free. Even if you try to ignore them and manage on your own, once they figure out what you want they will either direct you to it, or if you are in a particularly crowded area they will sometimes run off and come back with samples from a vendor and assure you that they represent a good value. This makes negotiating on price and shopping for best quality difficult, but if you like what they show you and don’t feel like niggling over a few hundred francs, you could just take what they have to offer. The vendor will appear for payment within a minute or so.
So what is a good price? The first thing you have to come to terms with is that you are 100% guaranteed not to get the best price if you are not African. You will be paying muzungu prices, which are significantly higher. You just have to accept that this is totally justified in the context of the salary you do/will/have the potential to earn whether in Rwanda or at home, relative to the wages of the average Rwandan. Once you have accepted this, you can fully appreciate and enjoy the thrill of getting great stuff at super great prices. On our first market visit, late in the afternoon, we paid 100 francs – about 15 cents – for a huge, perfect, delicious avocado. Those carefully selected pineapples are around 70 cents each. Prices are often quoted per kilo but except for dense items like potatoes and tomatoes, they are measured out in rough quantities using a large plastic cup or bucket. These estimated quantities in general seem very generous. Most items in typical household quantities for the week cost less than 1000 francs, or around $1.50. While the quoted price is virtually always negotiable and may be lower from the vendor two tables to the left, you ultimately have to decide just how much you want to quibble to bring the price down another 100 francs, particularly given the relative value that amount holds for you versus the person selling you the goods. If you really are stuck on the idea of getting the best price and don’t mind missing the fun of the market, you could ask an African friend or your housekeeper to go shopping for you. You can’t ask them to go shopping with you unless you want to curse them to a lifetime of paying muzungu prices forever more.
One final word of advice: don’t forget your bags! Unless you are only there to by one or two items and you have a will of steel that keeps you from picking up something extra, you are going to need something to carry home your treasure. Plastic bags are banned in Rwanda as a means of reducing environmental waste, so none of the vendors provide them. Some are able and willing to supply a small paper bag for a few items, but you may well end up with your cucumbers crushing your tomatoes and nowhere to put your pineapple. Best to bring at least a couple of big shopping bags with handles so you can keep the heavy stuff away from the more delicate items, and a bunch of paper bags so you can keep everything sorted according to your preferences.