Music blows out of giant speakers while laughing women encourage the market visitors to buy their goods, mini buses packed with people rush through the jammed streets, boys in plastic slippers push carts full of merchandising, small girls balance big metal bowls on their heads, giant slimy snails slowly try to escape from woven baskets. The smells, colours and noises float through the air, intermingle, collide. The sun relentlessly beats down on visitors and merchandisers alike; people huddle under parasols and hide under big straw hats, looking for a bit of precious shade.
If you want to buy something in Accra, the capital of Ghana, you can without doubt find it at one of its many markets. Makola Market, Kaneshie Market, take your pick, they are all bustling with people selling and buying anything you can imagine: potatoes, yams, tomatoes, creams, shampoos, bars of soap, colorful fabric, shoes, pants, pots, fish…
Looking for clothes? The Obruni Wao Market, a market for second hand clothes of Western origin, is the perfect place to purchase a new economic outfit. Here, ski-pants, underwear, flowers skirts, jeans, woolen sweaters and shirts lie piled up on cars or simply on the middle of the street. In fact, Obruni Wao means Dead White Man. Where else do all these clothes come from if not from dead white people? If they were alive they would surely need them! That the real cause of these piles of discarded garments is most likely a change of wardrobe to make room for newer more fashionable items, is unimaginable and unexplainable for people that try to feed their family on a few dollars a day.
Ninety percent of Ghanaians purchase second hand clothing, affordability being the main reason. The result is a very colourful and imaginative dress-style: plastic purple slippers match perfectly with a lace skirt and a shirt with a baby seal print. A buff handsome guy easily wears his jeans and wife-beater combined with a vibrant English looking lady-hat with flowers on it. A woolen beanie will be worn at temperatures over 30C, pink looks good on anyone and mixing prints is not a sin. “Mix and match” could perfectly well be replaced for “miss and match”: 100% Ghanaian style.
I decide to visit the “dead white man’s market” to get a feel of the place and, who knows, purchase an item myself. Getting there is quite an ordeal and involves a combination of public transport (a chock-full overheated rusty small minibus), good indications (the market never seems to be where it is supposed to be, or is it just me?) and good footwear (it is huge!). Do not forget to bring sunscreen, add a pinch of patience and a hint of humor and you are on your way!
It is hot, sweat is running down my back, the constant stream of people is pushing me forward The market is in the open air, no shop-windows and clothes-racks here and definitely no chance to pass by unobserved.
“Sweetie! Mummy! Obruni! I have your size! I have your size!” the traders shout at me as I am trying to make my way through mountains of clothes and rivers of people. Some manage to roughly grab my hand and direct me towards their stack of clothes, others hold up shirts and trousers to get my attention. I am not sure where to look or in which direction to go. I take a deep breath and dive into the ocean of clothes to explore the wide variety of garments.
After a few immersions I encounter a pair of pants that could fit me. Of course, I first have to try on the pants before I buy anything. The street is the shop, the street is the changing room. I think the whole of Accra has seen my underwear, despite of my efforts to elegantly slip on the pants under my skirt while keeping my balance, avoiding the crowds, and trying not to get run over by a car. The pants are a bit small, the button does not close. The vendor, a big women in her thirties, looks at me curiously.
“I don’t think this is my size,” I say, while I point at the button.
She manages to grab the button and closes it with effort. While I’m gasping for breath she triumphantly claims, “This is your size! It fits!”
I look at her in amazement. “I really don’t think it fits”, I say laughingly. I slip off the pants and hand them back at her, thanking her for her help. She shakes her head as I walk away. “Obruni, this is your size!” she shouts after me.
My search continues and after a while I find a pair of capri pants that are acceptable. I seal the deal after a short negotiation.
The second hand clothes trade in Ghana forms an important part of local economy. Uncountable families depend on it for survival. Critics say it puts in danger the market of local made fabrics, government often calls it unhygienic, claiming that “the importation of such items, particularly used underwear, is likely to carry diseases to the user.” However you look at it, one things is for sure, the Obruni Wao market will knock you off your (second hand) socks.