When you step into an African market, you know you've stepped into a whole new world. The energy felt is unlike any other. Your senses are taken on a journey rich with flavor and history. There are vibrant colors everywhere you look - from the brightly colored tomatoes, carrots, and mangos, to the colorfully adorned market women. You can smell spices such as ginger, onions, peppers and cloves. The various languages of people bartering and of market women trying to get your attention may be overwhelming. Everywhere you turn, bodies are moving with determination as they crowd narrow streets, eager to find a good deal. Yes, an African market transports you to another world. Are you ready to explore?
When I (Toni) went to Makola Market, one of the many markets in Ghana, West Africa, I went with a purpose. My mission seemed simple: find beautiful fabric for our Fanm Djanm's limited edition Ghana collection coming this Fall! Every part of making a Fanm Djanm headwrap is made with hard work, creativity and a whole lot of love. From sourcing the fabric, to having our in-house seamstress make the headwrap, to creating our lookbook concept, to finding models to showcase our style - each step is done with intention and thoughtfulness.
We thought it would be beneficial to take you to the beginning of the process - sourcing the fabric. We wanted to share with you the history of African printed fabrics. We didn't stop there! We also wanted to share with you the experience and some tips to make the best out of shopping at an African market. Keep reading!
A quick history on the origin of wax African printed fabric
Wax African print has a unique history. What we now know as African print is not innately African. Wax African print has roots in Indonesia in fabric called batik. Batik is a handmade intricate way of creating patterns on fabric by using hot wax. Europeans saw how profitable the batik fabric was and made their own version using machines to make them faster and cheaper. Their aim was to flood the Indonesian market with their machine-made version and cash in. When they brought their version to the Indonesian market, Indonesians were not impressed. The machine-made version created a lot of imperfections in the fabric and did not compare to their original handmade batiks. So the Europeans turned their attention to the West African markets where they were gaining popularity. Since batiks were not part of their culture, there was no comparison to the original and they quickly adopted the Indonesian inspired fabric as their own.
Not all fabrics are made the same
There are different brands of African print fabrics with varying quality. Not all of the fabrics are made in Ghana. In fact, there is a large section of printed fabric made in China, imported and sold in African markets. If buying locally made fabric is important to you, it is essential to ask the seller where the fabric is coming from. I find the prints made in China are of less quality than those made in Ghana. My go to brand is GTP (Ghana Textile Printing). They make beautiful, high quality printed fabrics. The GTP factory is located in Tema, Ghana and I'm making inquires about getting a tour of their facilities. Fingers crossed I am able to bring you inside to see how the fabrics are made (stay tuned)!
When selecting the fabric for our collection, only the best quality and beautiful prints made it across the Atlantic to our Harlem office.
Tips and tricks to work some magic at the market
I have been to market on several occasions and here are a few tips I picked up to make the most of the experience.
1. Go early. Yes, this means getting a good night's rest. I woke up in the morning around 5:30 and left the house by 6. I chose to go on a Saturday which is a prime market day in Accra. On Saturdays it's a full house in the market. Everyone is there selling their goods so you know you will find what you're looking for and the most variety.
2. Make a list. The day before, write down everything you need on a loose leaf piece of paper. I emphasize writing it on paper instead of your phone because it's not a good idea to be pulling out a posh phone at the market. Once you step into the market, it's easy to become overwhelmed and forget something. Additionally, markets are divided into sections. Some of the sections you'll find are: food stuff (fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, spices), beads, clothing, cosmetics, fabrics, paintings, woodcarvings, furniture and so much more. You would hate to get to the clothing section only to realize you forgot to pick up shea butter back in the cosmetics section. Making a list also helps you to stay focused. Who is guilty of leaving stores with bags of items you didn't intend to buy? Make that list and stick to it!
3. Find a guide that knows the layout of the market and speaks the local language. Markets are hard to navigate for those who don't know their way around. Who wants to spend the day walking around in a circle looking for what they want? Not I. Going with someone who knows the topography of the market will save you time and stress. Having someone who knows the language will facilitate communication and help you save money (via bargaining). Most of the market women in Accra speak Twi, one of the many local languages in Ghana. It's easy to negotiate a good deal when you can speak with them in their language. Usually, I stay quiet and let my guide do the talking. Once my American accent is heard, some will give me the tourist price instead of the local price. No. No. No. Not today.
4. Negotiate. My negotiating skills are getting better with each visit to the market. Before going, I find the general prices of what I'm going to purchase. It helps in that when I'm given a high price, I know immediately. Not today auntie, my money is for me. There's an art to bargaining and with each visit to the market, I am perfecting the art.
5. Secure your valuables. Or better yet, leave them at home. I only bring with me what I need. Petty theft happens and it's better not to make yourself a target by leaving flashy things out of the equation.