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Toi Market: Nairobi’s best kept shopping secret

Friday, January 21, 2011 - 00:00 -- BY RUHILA ADATIA

If you are hoping to look fabulous in the latest fashions without spending a fortune, this is where you need to go

I love shopping. It doesn’t matter what I buy, be it groceries, shoes, clothes, bags, furniture or jewellery. I enjoy every minute I spend browsing the shop, trying on various items and the thrill of paying for a purchase and taking it home is better than soaking in chocolate.

My best friend’s husband often teases me for being a shopaholic as I don’t need a reason to shop. It doesn’t matter what my mood is, buying things has always made me happy. Not once have I suffered buyer’s remorse – ok maybe once when I paid three months’ rent on my Chanel bag - but I slept with it for a month and loved it like a child.

That said, shopping for clothes and shoes can be depressing in Nairobi as items are often overpriced. You walk in to a shop and fall in love with a top, shoe or dress and when you check the price tag out it’s like a slap in the face.

In my younger, immature, less responsible days I would spend my entire savings on clothes and accessories but now that I am older and wiser, I think twice before buying a dress and I would rather spend that money on groceries, the electricity bill or that microwave I so badly need.

As a result my shopping affair with Nairobi boutiques has waned. I was getting tired of going in expecting a great bargain and ending up leaving hurt and dejected. Imagine my surprise therefore when a posh gal pal told me she had the solution to my depression.

It was the end of last year and the Christmas blues were hitting me as I had tons of presents to buy and would have nothing left over to buy myself a few snazzy pieces to wear to the countless Christmas dinners I had been invited to.

She made a date with me on a Saturday morning and told me to wear comfortable clothes and shoes and be prepared to shop till I drop.

She said that with Sh4,000 I could acquire an entire wardrobe, I scoffed at her and thought she had taken leave of her senses.

However, as I never break shopping dates and still believe Santa exists, I decided to put my newly acquired matatu riding lessons to use and went ahead to meet her at Kibera’s Toi Market (nearer Woodley and Adams Arcade).

Alighting at Adams Arcade I scanned the crowd for Shiko. She had to flag me down three times before I recognised her in her tacky jeans, a hoody and cheap slippers. “What on earth are you wearing?” she asked. I was wearing my jeans, faded designer t-shirt and third-best snazzy shoes and in my opinion I already looked like a rag doll. “Get in” she demanded opening the car door and throwing another pair of tattered slippers, an ugly hoody that had seen Van Halen come and go out of style and a t-shirt I wouldn’t even sleep in at me. I honestly thought all the make-up and bling she normally wears had finally seeped through her skull and made her barking mad. “Dude i’m not looking like a rugrat” I said snootily.

She practically had to force the clothes on me, but when I finally stepped foot into Toi Market I understood her actions. Dressing down ensured stall owners didn’t charge you ridiculously high prices, comfortable shoes were essential as you could walk for hours and hours shopping and valuables were better left at home to prevent petty theives.

The sight that hit me when I first saw the endless lines of stalls and vendors was “I have died and Thank You Lord for taking me to heaven”.

Bubbling with excitement I was led from vendor to vendor where each stall had either tops, shoes, jeans, jewellery, books, cooking utensils, carpets, food, dresses, office wear and the list went on and on.

Sure some of the items were second-hand but I wasn’t about to turn my nose up at a relatively new Michael Kors top for Sh150, a Zara sweater for Sh200, or a Marc Jacobs summer line dress for Sh800.

I would never have able to afford these designer clothes and if some spoilt brat was only going to wear them once and chuck them, then I was going to make the best of that opportunity and let the dress’s dream of being loved forever be accomplished.

I must admit I wasn’t too keen on buying the shoes as Lord knows whose calloused, bunion feet went into them, but the jeans, skirts, pants and dresses helped me fulfil my Christmas destiny - a new wardrobe that came dirt cheap.

Of course I came across the odd sly vendor who put me in a “muhindi” box and tried to con me and got arrogant and annoying when he was defeated, but the kind, funny vendors more than made up for them.

My favourite stall was Eric and Mathew’s dress stall. They sold me the most amazing dresses and at such a fair price that even I felt like I was cheating them of a profit.

Eric told me in a week they could easily sell 50 or so dresses and made a very decent living and had nothing but praise for the City Council in Nairobi for helping them make a living and not end up begging on the streets.

Mathew told me had been selling dresses for a long time as women spent more money on clothes as they needed them more and frequently and what was not to like about serving beautiful women?

Nancy, another stall owner who sold exquisite designer bags and tops for a throwaway price told me she got all her gear at Gikomba. She went there twice or thrice a week and bought sack loads of goods, then took them home and sorted the great sells from the cheap sells out. From there she knew how to price her goods and how to clean and display them in her stall.

However there were also some unlicensed traders trying also to make a buck and one of these, John M, told me that everyday he has to pay the bribes to Council employees of up to Sh500 to stay in business. So why not get a permit or follow the legal way I asked him.

He said the bureaucracy of it all was a bother and could take many weeks to get it sorted out, so he did what all his fellow sellers did, pay the price or dash into a corner with his goods when the Council truck was spotted.

At the end of it all Toi market is a true treat for any shopper as you can get whatever your greedy shopper’s heart desires and always at a bargain. Just make sure you have your bargaining face on, comfortable and understated shoes and clothes and I guarantee you will come away happy and satisfied.