Gikomba Market-A Paradox

A feminist’s nightmare paired with the cheapest shopping we’ve ever seen…

Sierra, Carly and I (Ariel) decided to go to the market. We wanted to get a taste of local color and maybe pick up a few souvenirs or goodies while we were there. We took several matatus there with Shiko (a Kuza mentor) and Faith (Jonathan’s wife). They decided the best place to buy clothes was the Gikomba market—an especially cheap outlet where many of the shops and stands that line the streets all around Nairobi purchase their merchandise. Gikomba is the largest mitumba (second-hand) market and employs 65,000 people. The second-hand industry accounts for all the vigor of the market, but is often criticized as ruining Kenya’s garment industry. As we pulled to the Gikomba market, halfway between our home in Umoja and the Central Business District, we hopped out of the matatu and were instantly overwhelmed with sensory overflow. There were literally hundreds of stands in front of us, all selling very similar goods. There were shoes, all likely knock-off brands or second-hand, some of which were still wet from being washed by the storeowners in bins right alongside the shops. There were piles and piles of clothing, some of which still had Goodwill tags on them, though they were being sold for a tiny fraction of the price that the Goodwill tags dictated. Sierra was able to get a fancy floral dress for the American equivalent of only $1.00. It’s a great place for locals to buy affordable clothing, and their were many prominent brands. Shiko told us about some of the great deals she had gotten on Nike and other brands while there, and we could see her shopping expertise as she navigated through the stands. The shopping was extravagant, and the deals were unrivaled. However, we did not realize that we would barely even have the chance to look at the clothing.

We were harassed so incessantly, and it only worsened as we got deeper and deeper into the market. It started with people jokingly screaming “mzungu” (Swahili for white person/foreigner) at us as we walked through. Then it quickly worsened into a feminist’s nightmare. Men began calling out at us with things like:

“I want one! Give me one!”

…“Those are your bedroom dresses for my bedroom!”

…or disgustingly whisper in our ears “You are sexy”

…or even “I want to have you”

…and other things of the sorts.

I, being Asian, also got “Ching Chong” a few times.

What I found to be far worse than any of the verbal harassment, however, was the physical harassment. Men literally grabbed us and would hold onto us as we tried to walk forward. Getting rather annoyed, we began to shrug or push the men off, though some had stronger grips than others. Faith told us that she frequently faces this type of harassment in places like this, with men frequently slapping her butt. Faith walked behind us to try to protect us from behind, while Shiko walked in front of us.  The men were hardly kinder to Shiko. I’d say the biggest difference is that they yelled at her in Swahili instead.

We suddenly realized, however, that even though we felt entirely uncomfortable with the way the men treated us within the market, we ultimately have homes in the United States where women are treated as HUMANS and get the RESPECT that we deserve. That realization made us even more sympathetic towards Kenyan women, and also made us feel very fortunate for the progress the United States has made. Yes, there are still issues within America concerning income inequality, power balances, and sexism. However, our struggles as women in America are dwarfed in comparison to the daily plights of many of the women in Kenya.

–Ariel Silverman



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