Metropole Magazine

Today's Weather: Abuja NG: Partly Cloudy, Day 360|Night 260

19 Nov Written by  Kimberly Ward

Utako Market and I

One sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided to visit Utako Market, alone. No chaperons, no hangers-on, no friends: just me and the busy, bustling market. I wanted to familiarise myself with the place on my own terms without the subtitles of others to colour my perceptions: “You have to hold on tightly to your bag!” “Avoid the back end of the market!” “Pretend you’re not interested in an item and you’ll pay less for it.” All the received wisdom from those with experience formerly clouded my enjoyment, but today I was determined to feel the market’s vitality unabridged.

So armed with comfortable flats, a secure handbag and an improved ability to haggle, I arrived at the sprawling collection of outlets filled with original, counterfeit, new and second-hand goods, taking my time to walk through the maze of merchandise.

Every turn led to a different community of heckling salesmen, chatting saleswomen and half-asleep traders who spring to life when they see you walk past and beckon you to come in. Groups of women gathered in front of one wall in varying stages of hair-dressing, one man had an open briefcase on top of a solitary cement block displaying all kinds of gold and silver jewellery, and wheelbarrow boys weaved through the dirt streets at full speed. Music from one shoe store-- filled with second-hand women’s footwear heaped on one side with sandals and ballet pumps hanging from pegs lining the entrance-- competed with music from a store two doors down where a chalk-white mannequin wearing a long denim skirt and long-sleeved blouse stood guard at the entrance.

I parted a cascade of hanging dresses to walk into a store where the small but mighty overhead fan cooled me from the heat of outside. In the shop opposite, a man sat in front of a sewing machine, pumping away on the foot-pedals with a cloth draped over his right shoulder, and near him a teenage girl sat staring blankly at passers-by.

Traders young and old called out to me: “Sister, I have fine dresses!” “My Dear, come and see now!” “Madam, wetin you dey find?” I smiled demurely at all. I bought mascara from an old gentleman whose morose face broke into a happy smile when I offered him N200 instead of the N400 he asked for, telling him it was fair. “It may be fair but it is not good!” he laughed.

I bought a black blouse at another shop, where the young sales assistant was eager to serve and her mother even more so; the old dear kept bringing in a trouser, a skirt, a blouse, to show me, telling me to “see this one, it will fit you.” Her other daughter-- whose natural hair was combed out long and full and free, ready to be harnessed back again into a prison of plaits-- chastised her: “Mama it’s OK now!” She thought she did it secretly but I saw, and smiled to myself.

In the end I spent N10, 000 on five items, an amount that would barely get me a pair of shoes at a boutique. And the service is better at the market too; you can laugh and argue and haggle animatedly with the traders and feel you’ve connected with a human being on a personal level. They appreciate your custom here, and many traders give out colourful business cards and tell you to “ask for Chucks” when you return.
Here grown men put shoes unto your feet, and one even went to check other stores for the style of shoes I wanted whilst I waited, seated on a chair he had dusted with his handkerchief: Personalised Service. The market is a more enriching form of shopping than the sterilised, forced formality of malls. Here the traders are like family members looking out for one another: “I no get am o, but abeg see my brother’s shop just there, he has fine, fine shoes. He’ll do dem for a good price for you.”

At the car park, a watch salesman caught my eye, and I asked for the price of a Calvin Klein gold watch with a black leather strap. “For you, N9, 500” he replied, confidently. I offered him N1, 000 and he agreed, wrapping my purchase in a white handkerchief. In the car I removed my old watch and put on the new one, and as I wound it to the correct time I saw that the gold hour and minute hand were of one piece and moved around the face of the clock together, keeping the same distance apart. Then the minute hand broke off, at the same time that one of the studded gems came off, and the two newly-detached pieces swung around merrily inside the watch every time I moved my hand.

I returned home from Utako market satisfied and bearing purchases with character, including a cute watch that may be useless at its job but which I got at almost 90% off its original asking price. Now that’s something to tell the grandkids.