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2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — Finalist

Market Hopping Around Lagos

Balogun Market ankara vendors.

There were only four items on my to-do list — buy some Ankara, buy some groceries, find a tailor, and get some original artwork. “You can’t find them all at the same place”, Remi explains as we travel along Lagos Mainland Bridge towards our first stop, Balogun Market.  It was a hot Friday morning in August, and traffic was already getting backed up for miles. Someone raps on the car window on my side and presses a bag of fried plantain chips against the glass. He is a street vendor. I shake my head. Street vendors are a common sight on the bustling streets of the metropolis that is Lagos, Nigeria. They sell snacks and water in traffic, as if, trying to prepare and hydrate you in anticipation of an all day shopping obstacle course.

We descend the bridge and go under it to find Balogun Market. Situated across from the Lagos Marina is the famous Balogun Market known for selling daily necessities and provisions such as shoes, clothing, and school supplies.  It is also known for various quality fabrics such as African lace and of course, Ankara.

Balogun Market ankara fabric.

Jeans is to casual American wear as Ankara is to casual Nigerian wear. Made in places such as Holland and Ghana, Ankaras come in various qualities, colors, and designs. Once acquired, Ankaras are handed to local tailors to sew into outfits. Balogun market is divided into nameless regions and alleys based on what its vendors collectively sold.

We were looking for "Ankara Alley."

After a ten minute dodge course — narrowly missing vendors, porters, and motorcycles squeezing through crowds, and leaping over backed up drainage — we make it to the narrow alley, and a wave of color hits us. Walls of Ankara surrounds us and we spin around awed. Picking through thousands of folded multicolored cloth was impossible and so strategy was plotted — Color first, pattern second, price third.

I find a gorgeous black Ankara with white and orange flower prints all over it. "Sister, sister!" the Ankara vendors call out. They are women about my age. If I'd been older, they'd have called me "Mommy! mommy!" "See this one! See this one!" they lift folded cloth up to my nose like I was meant to sniff them like flowers. We haggle a little bit for the price, and they graciously knock a couple Naira off the price. One can't be too greedy when trying to purchase beautifully printed material so unique that only a handful of people on earth own that design.

Balogun Market ankara alley.

It was noon and I was already drenched in sweat by the time item one was checked off the list — buy some Ankara.

We continued our quest for groceries and Remi directs the driver towards Oke Arin Market, which literally translates to “Up the Middle” market. Oke Arin is where residents of Lagos go to buy groceries that last an entire month. From sacks of rice and tubers of yams to baskets of tomatoes and onions, these food items are usually sold in bulk. The minute parking was secured and I tried to open the door, a butcher was at the car window, balancing raw meat on a cardboard box. I leaned back, not sure of what to make of this sight. “It is very fresh. Madam”, he tries to pitch the quality of the meat to me. “We will find fresher meat in the market”, Remi assures as we head in.

Oke Arin is like a roadside farmers market, magnified a thousand times. The freshest vegetables, fruits, livestock, and starches can be found here. In addition to organic items, provisions like canned milk, sugar, and cereal could also be purchased here in bulk.  I strike up some conversation with a tomato vendor. I was instantly drawn to his strong jaw line and sharp facial features. He was wearing a Gambari hat, synonymous with Hausas from the Northern part of the country.  The Hausa people are the largest ethnic group in Nigeria. They are revered merchants and savvy traders known for raising cattle and growing crops. After about two hours at Oke Arin, we return to the car with rice, tomatoes, onions, vegetables, and of course, fresh meat.

Oke Arin Market tomato vendor.

With two items down and two more to go on the list, fatigue set in and my endurance to continue the shopping mission wore thin. We’d already trekked miles through mazes of vendors at both Balogun and Oke Arin markets. “We will find your tailor at Iponri Market and some artwork at Jakande Market,” Remi gives me a status update. “We’re almost done”.

Iponri Market is structured differently than the previous two markets. Whereas Balogun and Oke Arin markets have open air sections, Iponri is a series of bungalows with about 400 sq. ft. rooms for each shop.  At Iponri, I spotted yellow rickshaws. They were used to transport yards of fabrics from textile markets to the tailors here at Iponri.  I knew we would find a tailor here to sew my Ankara cloth but I hadn’t anticipated rows and rows of tailors. There were tailors for each specific type of fabric. There were tailors who only sewed for men, tailors who only made embroidery patches for clothes, tailors who only sewed lace, tailors who only sewed Ankara… You get the picture. Sprinkled intermittently between the tailors where shops that sold food items, snacks, and a few groceries. They were catering to customers who came to drop off fabric but didn’t have time to make it to bigger grocery markets like Oke Arin. Was the concept of one-stop shopping, prevalent in the Western world, finally catching on? I pondered.

Iponri Market rickshaw.

We arrive at Remi’s favorite tailor. The tailor has a modest shop with four apprentices tapping away at old fashioned style sewing machines. I flip through magazines of different African outfits. The perfect style had to be picked for the Ankara which I’d bought earlier at Balogun Market. After taking my measurements and dropping off the fabric with the tailor, we head back to the car. “Ha! The guinea fowl!” Remi exclaims, and we take a little detour within the market to find a vendor selling live guinea fowls.  Guinea fowls (or guinea hens) are a family of birds similar to pheasants and partridges. They are very popular in Africa and are an alternate source of poultry meat. We find the vendor, buy two guinea fowls and add them to our groceries sitting in the trunk from Oke Arin market.

It was just after 4 p.m. We still had one last stop, Jakande Market, known for original artworks, world-class crafts, ceramics, beads, and sculptures. We hurtled down the highway in an attempt to get there before hitting the 5 p.m. rush hour traffic. Jakande is located on the Lekki Peninsular, a barrier island, separated from Lagos Island by a lagoon called Five Cowrie Creek, and by the Atlantic Ocean on its other side. Trudging through muddy, island streets, we get to Jakande — a collection of covered artisan shops, structurally similar to Iponri.

Once inside, I am immediately overwhelmed by traditional artwork. There are wooden carvings, metal and ivory sculptures, and colorful paintings of people, traditional events, and scenery indigenous to various parts of Nigeria. Adding to Jakande’s mystic is the fact that the artisans themselves sell their own artwork. So we got to meet the artists as well as get firsthand interpretations of their creations. Just as we were hit with towers of colorful Ankara in Balogun Market, we didn’t know how to start shopping for artwork and beads at Jakande. There were thousands of strings of multicolored wooden and coral beads and handmade jewelry. I instantly morphed into a bride-to-be, speechlessly gawking at a diamond ring.

The strategy this time around was to buy the first item that caught our fancy and not regret it once we found something prettier or more colorful at the next store. After a grueling hour filled with indecision, we finally left Jakande with a couple paintings denoting various musicians — drummers, guitarists, flutists — and some wooden beads.

Jakande Market beads

We merged into traffic once again, but this time, hit the dreaded rush hour commute. I sat exhausted on the way back home. We’d successfully visited four markets and miraculously accomplished all our shopping goals.

As we sit in traffic, a shadow looms by my window. I look up at him. It is a street vendor with a bag of fried plantain chips pressed against the glass once again. This time around, I wind down the window and purchase two bags from him.

The day had come full circle.

Navigating four large markets in one day is an ambitious goal for a foreigner.

For many Nigerians, it’s just a regular Friday.

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