Thursday, 26 May 2011

Rwanda Journal, Entry 36: The Kimironko Market

The Kimironko Market is located in the Kigali neighbourhood of Remera.

Walking through the main gates, past a narrow street where mototaxis wait for fares, Western eyes are confounded by more stalls, goods and vendors than they have ever seen.

Tote bags bearing the names and faces of reggae singers sit nestled between beaded belts and bracelets of green, yellow, red and black.

Merchants compete for customers with the intensity of piranhas jostling for the flesh of a water buffalo.  They are respectful enough when waved off but have learned to thrust their items into the faces of foreigners as a matter of survival.

Sneakers, handbags, imitation designer watches, sunglasses, suitcases, water jugs, children's toys, pots, pans; all are displayed and for sale.

Past the corridors where the vendors hustle watches and cookware lies the fresh food market.

The market rests inside a steel-framed warehouse that is open on all sides. Steel columns rise from the concrete floor every twenty or thirty feet.

Above them, an intricate series of girders support the roof. Open skylights, rather than fluorescent lights, illuminate the sea of food stands below.

The warehouse is as vast as a football stadium but filled to the brim.

Inside the structure, fruit and vegetable stands extend in every direction. Rwandans busily tend to their business of weighing produce, haggling with buyers, hauling crates, sacks and bunches of bananas.    
It is exhausting work and many, including children as young as ten, work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
The market houses every of staple of the Rwandan diet and in extraordinary abundance.

Carrots, onions, eggplant, lettuce, potatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, squash, avocados, mangoes, papaya, lemons, passion fruit and innumerable others are stacked high in the air.

It is a constant struggle to prevent decay and waste and without air-conditioning or refrigeration the fruit and vegetable vendors have only one real strategy: sell, as much as possible as quickly as possible.

The warehouse is filled with the noisy buzz of a thousand voices in perpetual negotiation.

An occasional word or sentence can be picked out of the gyre but without knowledge of Kinyarwanda or Swahili, it is like the ecstatic babble at a pentecostal church.

In every section of the warehouse buyers and sellers dicker over sums.  Few, if any, prices are marked and value is calculated differently in every interaction.  
An economist might see some kind of natural order in these interactions, but to anyone who has spent life buying groceries from a supermarket chain store, it is strange and disorienting.
Outside of the warehouse, rows of shops sell household items and other food stuffs.
Toilet paper, laundry detergent, diapers, fabric, bags of rice, meats, cheeses, poultry and fish are all sold from tiny stores with brightly coloured signs.

The shop owners proudly display their products and happily pose for pictures inside their shops.

Freezers and other conveniences give them more time than the merchants inside the warehouse to sit and wait for business.

The pace of life is slower and more deliberate. For many, the shops are family businesses they have owned and operated for years. There is little fear of failure or competitors. 

Even so, when a prospective customer approaches their shop they spring into action and quickly explain why their meat is sweeter than any of the other shops at Kimironko.

Always fresher and more delicious, always bigger and, for you, cheaper than anywhere else you could go.

The claims are made without dishonesty or hyperbole. To them, the meat is sweeter and more delicious, better than any other. It is theirs, and of all the meat they have ever had, there is none they prefer more.
In Kimironko, even the beggars have some manner of dignity and smile easily at passersby. It could be a guise affected to ease the tedium and insecurity of wage earning, but perhaps not.

In a continent and country so blighted by hardship and want, the presence of such extraordinary abundance, as at the Kimironko Market, is comforting.
Even if the formalities of ownership and legal title interfere, there is security in the knowledge that a hand extended will come to rest on something nourishing.

It is difficult for any contemporary North American–except maybe those who've been lost in the wilderness–to understand the terror and anguish of utter deprivation. In all but the most extreme situations, it is a threat that has been banished from our lands.

But in Africa, the grim spectre of mortality and starvation hovers just outside the door.

Even if it isn't obvious, as in the urban hub that is Kigali, awareness of devastating scarcity leaves a permanent mark on the minds of those it touches. The mark is invisible but gives clues to its presence.
At the Kimironko Market, located in the Kigali neighbourhood of Remera, the clue is very often gratitude.


  1. See Cam? I told you you would find the market a cool place! Though, that warehouse wasn't there when I was.
    Another couple of places that weren't up and running at that time, but I was told that prior to 95, they were quite cool, were the American club, and Kigali's golf club. Either of them still operating?

  2. You were absolutely right Jim, it was a very cool place. I could have spent a week there and not seen everything worth seeing.

    I'll let you know about the American Club, I know the golf club is still there and will see if I can get up there some time.

    Thanks for the suggestions.


  3. LOL, at the golf course, the rough was really rough! All grown over/tall grass! Not to mention peppered with UXOs(unexploded ordinances). As engineers, we had the arduous task of dealing with those things!
    Someone hand me my sand wedge.