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Fabric shopping in Ghana: an unforgettable experience

June 27, 2013
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The Kajetia Marketplace in Kumasi, Ghana.

Shops in the Kajetia Marketplace in Kumasi, Ghana.

Imagine shopping at the mall on Black Friday, with hundreds or even thousands of people crammed into the building walking from store to store and up and down the hallways. Now multiply that chaos by 10. Consider how it would feel if every store was really a small stall, and you had to navigate the streets in 90 degree heat. Add to that the shouts and horns of cab drivers and the confusion of traffic. To top it all off, everyone is speaking a foreign language. The picture you have in your mind is the Kajetia Marketplace in Kumasi, Ghana.

The streets of the Kajetia Marketplace

The busy streets of the Kajetia Marketplace.

For our group of University of Michigan students studying in Ghana this summer, it was intimidating to even think about going to Kajetia. Among hundreds of Africans, we would stand out quite obviously. Everything from our accent to our skin color to the very clothing we wore would mark us as Obrunis, or foreigners, and we were worried about pickpockets and highly inflated Obruni prices. As time passed, however, our fears were quickly surpassed by our desire to obtain authentic African print fabric. Luckily, two of our fellow students from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology were kind enough to be our chaperones.

Our all female group, nine Americans and two Ghanaians, approached the taxi park outside our hostel. Confused about what to do, we stood off to the side while our Ghanaian guides, Edith and Dee Dee, chatted with the drivers in the local language Twi and negotiated the price: 60 pesewas (about 30 cents) per person. We piled into the cars and took a short ride to the outskirts of the KNUST campus. At this point, we realized that we still had a ways to go to get to Kajetia. We learned that in order to get to the market, we needed to take a “tro-tro,” a large beat-up van that operates like a bus, charging fares and making stops.

U-M students traveling in a crowded tro-tro.

Crammed into a tro-tro on a trip to the Kajetia Marketplace. From left to right: U-M students Jessica Opaleski, Saloni Dagli, Gabby Holyszko, Rachel Goubert, Genevieve Flaspohler and KNUST student Dee Dee Akude.

With the help of our guides, all 11 of us piled in a tro-tro and raced through traffic all the way into town. When we reached Kajetia, we were amazed by the chaos everywhere. Buildings and stalls lined the roads. People with baskets on their heads were selling everything imaginable, walking up and down the tightly packed streets and crossing in front of fast-moving traffic.

Our Ghanaian guides ushered us awestruck Americans to a side street that had multiple fabric stores. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the stores were actually indoors, comprised of single clean, well-lit showrooms with clearly marked prices – a sharp contrast to the majority of stalls in the market.

Riding in a tro-tro, a large van that operates like a bus.

U-M students riding in the front of a tro-tro. From left to right: A’zia Harris-Martin, Tasha Tardieu and Nicole Harvel.

Unknown to us, Edith and Dee Dee were acting as our guardian angels. They made sure the group stayed together, and they kept us out of oncoming traffic. After we completed all of our purchases, they helped us experience a few more typical Kajetia experiences. They led us to the outdoor stands to barter for shoes and purses. One Michigander stopped at a fruit stand and Edith helped her purchase a coconut, immediately opened with a machete and consumed on the spot.

Eventually, we started to make our way back to our hostel for dinner. We worried that we wouldn’t be able to find another tro-tro to take all of us back at once. It had started raining, so everyone in the marketplace was rushing home like we were. By some miracle, Edith and Dee Dee found a ride back to campus for all of us. Now, because of Edith and Dee Dee, I think each of us feels more confident navigating Kajetia. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Rachel Goubert and Jessica Opaleski are among 20 first- and second-year students from U-M and 17 students from KNUST taking two classes together this summer. One class is about Ghanaian culture and the Twi language, and the second is called “Engineering Appropriate Technologies: Needs, Design and Entrepreneurship,” taught by James Holloway, vice provost for global and engaged education at U-M.

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