One of the most colorful spots in Bujumbura is the fabric corner of the “City Market”. There are stall after stall of vibrant, colorful fabrics sold in 6 meter panels to wrap around bodies as skirts, dresses, shirts, head wraps and baby carriers. I have been to the City Market fabric shopping several times with others and it is always an entertain experience which ends in buying several pieces of fabric.
Recently, I needed to find fabric to replace the cushions on our balcony. After over two years of equatorial sun in the early morning and late afternoon they had faded so badly I needed to replace them. This was to be my project during the six weeks between our company conference in Spain and leaving for vacation—a summer doldrums (if such a thing is possible) because it’s a time that nearly next to nothing is happening due to schools being out of session and many people leaving the city. Problem was I wasn’t sure about going to the market on my own and everyone else I knew was gone, so I asked Gilbert, our house-worker, to accompany me and be my translator and guide (although most vendors speak some French). He gladly agreed and so we went.
There is a bit of a system to the choosing of fabric and it is no different here. First, one is overwhelmed by the colors and varieties, even when you have an idea of what you’re looking for. So it’s important to peruse all the choices to find which fabrics keep jumping out at you. Here that means all the stalls. Second, you have to be gathering information, asking prices to get an idea of the range, quality and the negotiation parameters. Third, once you know the fabric that keeps attracting your eye at each stall you can begin to narrow the field of which stalls have it and how much they might sell it for. Of course, one doesn’t straight out ask about the piece of the one you’re interested in—that would be a give away—rather you pretend not to be interested and bargain for other pieces and be a little disgusted at the high price. Then you ask “What about others that cost less, like this one or this one, how much?”
This was the negotiation Gilbert facilitated for me in Kirundi, then translating to French, along with lots of discussion about which fabrics fade and which are more durable. In the end, I pay the “ex-pat price”, not the lower “Burundian price” but at least not the higher “tourist price”. If I could have sent him back on his own another day he might have been able to negotiate a cheaper price but economically times are hard for everyone and I really wanted to leave with fabric in hand so I paid the middle price that day.
Afterwards we walked through other parts of the market to buy light bulbs and look for an attachment for the garden hose. I had never been to the other parts of the market and had no idea just how big it was and how many things were available there. I even got to meet one of Gilbert’s relatives who owns a stall selling clothes from Uganda. Because Gilbert was “my guide” no one else approached me to buy things or to be my “helper”, which I have to say made this trip to the market even more pleasant. So now, not only do I have bright, new cushions on the balcony I also have another pleasant experience of the shopping for fabric at the “City Market”.