While England was sweltering through a heat wave, the residents of the Karen suburb, outside Nairobi were starting a new fashion for wearing locally made sheepskin boots. UK summer is Nairobi’s winter and here the sun struggles to break through low grey cloud on most days. We wrap up in jeans and jumpers and light the log fire by lunch time. Because July and August are ‘summer’ holidays, most expats escape the gloom to go Europe for the duration.
The ankle height sheepskin boots resemble those that your granny might wear when all other shoes are ‘too tight’. They intended to be worn as slippers I think, but are popularly seen out coupled with jeans or even summer dresses. There are even children’s sizes available for the fashion conscious kids and they are undeniably cosy, but incredibly unattractive. A friend’s visiting mother commented ‘are those what they call ugly boots darling?’ (I think she was referring to Ugg boots).
Expats and white Kenyans here are highly fashion conscious, but as accessibility to UK high street fashions is limited, we have resorted to a home grown sort of look. Popping down to the local Karen supermarket, mums and daughters are clad in full skirted minis made from local kikoy and kanga fabrics, wide leather beaded belts, flat suede knee boots with bare legs, spaghetti strapped vests or embroidered kaftans thrown together with strings of beads and all topped either by a froth of long unkempt hair or a leather cowboy style hat. It’s hard to keep up. Wearing discernable makeup is a definite no no and definitely uncool. Brightly coloured swirling patterned tunic shirts made from local cotton fabrics, with occasional scattered sequins; leather skirts with hand stitched Maasai beads and cowry shells and long suede coats; woven sisal handbags and Indian silver rings and bangles. De rigueur, is a round the year tan with a coating of red dust that conjures up the impression that you have just stepped out of a Landrover, straight from a wild and extended camping safari! Oh yes, and incidentally the pashmina never seems to go out of fashion here. (So versatile!)
To go in search of a supply of more conventional clothes means venturing into local mitumba (second hand) markets. It’s possible to buy not just cheap clothes but toys, shoes and curtains all freshly shipped from Europe in forty foot containers. Many items still have their ‘Oxfam £1.50’ paper labels attached, but at the markets here you are often paying a fraction of even that price. Containers of donated second hand clothing are distributed via traders who pay the cost of clearing the freight and then re-sell the bales of clothes to stall holders.
Shopping at these markets has all the thrill of the chase that you might get on an English city high street during the sales. The excitement of uncovering a barely worn OshKosh or Ralph Lauren dress for the children, or a ‘normally out of my price range’ pair of Diesel jeans in excellent condition is quite a rush! Burberry mackintoshes, Timberland boots and Calvin Klein sweatshirts can often be rooted out. Entrepreneurial housewives have made businesses out of buying up mitumba clothes, then selling them on via a word of mouth/text message network from home. The concept is successful as it saves customers from braving the heat, dust and smells of the markets.
In fact, the mitumba shopping experience is quite unique and not for the faint hearted. During rainy season Wellington boots are a must and standing in the hot sun sorting through all descriptions of skirts, trousers or t-shirts is no easy task. Wise shoppers remove jewellery, tuck cash in pockets and bras, stringing a mobile phone around their necks. There have been occasional muggings and car jackings, but the stall holders are always friendly and open to bargaining. Clothes and shoes are piled on tables along narrow muddy or dusty walkways. It can feel a little claustrophobic when one wanders deep into the maize of ally ways. Often the traders specialise exclusively in jeans or only trainers, or belts, fleece jumpers, or linen clothes. This makes searching a little easier. More sophisticated stalls hang clothes on hangers then string them up on ropes for easier viewing. You can occasionally find a small designated changing area, but these luxuries are reflected in slightly higher prices charged. Heavily laden hand carts come careering past and there’s gossip, food cooking and radios blaring. The key is to look out for quality labels, good condition and bring plenty of change or you will be stranded as your stall holder disappears for hours in search of fifty bob.
The Maasai market is a good venue for gifts and accessories and a similar shopping experience to ‘mitumba’. Alternatively, there is a limited choice of more conventional clothes shops in Nairobi. One can either visit Indian or traditional African outfitters, overpriced shopping centre chain stores or go to vastly expensive chi chi boutiques tucked away in private gardens who sell local designs produced by white Kenyan fashion goddesses. Leather and beads are usually the theme. The Maasai tribesperson look is in. However, it’s a sanitised version without the smelly red shuka (traditional cloak) or car tyre sandals! Needless to say, all the goods in the shop are ‘stunning’; ‘unique’ and individually crafted ‘works of art’, ‘authentic’ and inspired by the indigenous peoples of Kenya. Each item is handmade, or embellished by the small gaggle of Maasai women who can be seen sitting outside on the grass outside happily conversing in Maa. You cannot help but wonder what their share of the £100 share of the price tags might be? With high taxes impeding the import of new mainstream clothes, we must continue to either shop ahead for a twelve month supply of clothes, shoes and bags whilst on annual trips to Europe, or run the risk of looking very strange to those khaki clad tourists who pass through the ‘safari capital’ Nairobi. In fact I did wear my sheepskin boots out of the house this morning, but just to drop my daughter to the 7am school bus.