Makola market is one of those places that expats here seem to love, hate or tolerate for a once off touristy outing. I fall into the first category and this doesn’t surprise me when I think back to how much I used to enjoy trips with my mom to the Durban fleamarkets. Did you know that the word ‘fleamarket’ dates back to the 1920’s and comes from a French word originally given to markets in Paris that sold second hand goods that were likely to container fleas!?
As a child, her and I would wander from stall to stall on a Sunday, hunting out bargains and little figurines for my printers tray (bless!). Many years later we still enjoyed meandering through the aisles of the Greyville market and sometimes diving headfirst into huge soft mountains of Indian saris. Our eyes would have caught a glimpse of a small section of a bold pattern or brilliant colour that shouted to us to be sewn into a garment and we would then work to pull these out from an enormous protesting pile that were all sitting comfy, nestled into each other.
I remember googling ‘Accra market’ when I visited Ghana for the first time when David was already working here. ‘Makola’ popped up and his driver Philip chaperoned me on my first trip to the biggest, most overwhelming, sensory explosion of a marketplace I had ever seen! I was completely overawed at one point, in disbelief that so much action could be happening in every metre of an area with an accompanying cacophony of surround sound! A sheer battering on each one of my senses, but oh how I loved it and felt simply alive to be in such a buzz of daily activity. I was excited to be coming to live in a place soon that was throbbing with so much life!
Since that visit every time a friend has a visitor staying, or wants to go fabric shopping, I jump at the opportunity to visit Makola with them and I find that each trip we make has some anecdote that is so unique and memorable that we will be reminiscing about ‘that time at Makola…..’ in years to come. Like the time my mom and I arrived by Uber and realised we had forgotten our cash and cards at home after getting out the car (no judging at how ridiculous this sounds please), and the way we were trying to explain to the next Uber where we were but he couldn’t find us in the maze like surrounds. The image I have of my mom running across the street chasing the number plate on my phone screen brings an immediate smile to my face.
Or when soon after we moved here I woke up feeling like I needed to see Makola for a second time and introduce then 8-year-old Emma to this crazy place and we caught a taxi on a home school adventure. We were admiring the beautiful hand painted Ghanaian beads and just as I took this photo of her a cheeky man pinched my bum and then feigned total innocence when I turned around with a horrified look on my face!!! Her beautiful big eyes were even bigger at some of the things we saw that day!
And that one time (and only time in Ghana) that I was almost pick pocketed by an elderly man who tried to open my handbag! He pretended afterwards to be just as interested as me in the fabric that I’d been looking at, that was displayed on the pavement. But before I put you off with these two stories, let me tell you about when my mom and I were literally drenched in sweat, as the humidity and heat here are truly no joke, and we stopped for a most welcome cooldrink that cost 1 whole cedi….(only about R3 to those South African friends who are reading). We will never forget the amazing welcome and royal treatment we received from the shop owner who offered us each a plastic stool so that we could enjoy our Pepsi and Marinda while sitting down and taking a breather! And the day that Emma and her friend were offered a chair to share while their moms weighed up fabric options and the giggles that filled the tiny crowded shop. Human kindness and warmth at its very best!
I was chatting to my neighbour last weekend at the pool and she was relaying tales of the first week her and her fiancé spent in Ghana when they had been freshly plucked from Europe and were staying with colleagues in this ‘new’ West African country they would now call home. The day after getting stuck in a road protest when they were heading out of town, they were taken to Makola and what a scorching hot baptism by fire that trip was – she was utterly overwhelmed by the crowds, noise and heat and felt very claustrophobic with constant moving bodies within a metre of her at all times. As you may have guessed from my blog name I do love a bit of alliteration and adjectives that she may use to describe massive Makola would be “manic, mental mayhem”!
Yes, this marketplace is certainly not for the faint hearted and a trip is highly likely to leave you rather exhausted but in amongst the guaranteed overwhelm there are bound to be some magical moments of exhilaration and fascination!
A good place to start would be the parking lot that is currently painted orange and purple on Kojo Thompson Avenue. Round and round the car will head up past the sharp, tight pillars. The view from the fifth or sixth floor is nothing short of amazing. For as far as the eye can see, colourful umbrellas fill up the sides of the street that is closed to all cars, like bread batter rising in a bowl and spilling over the rim, their rounded forms push in from either side, encroaching on the road, leaving such a narrow walkway in the middle of the street for pedestrians!
From this high view the thin walkway is filled with people who appear like hungry determined ants heading for a promise of sugary goodness. Forming a nonstop long trail that does not stop moving for a second, it is constantly in motion and everyone seems to be in a great big hurry!
Big silver bowls can be seen moving back and forth as the Kayayei ladies beneath them, who are barely visible from this view, carry their ridiculously heavy loads for shoppers on their heads, for a small pittance. Under each of these umbrellas is someone’s little shop that they set up every morning and put away every evening using old empty tins and upside down stools and bowls to form displays and pyramids of goods.
I’m sure many of you have seen photos of art installations of colourful suspended umbrellas in streets, like the picture below. The original ‘Umbrella Sky Project’ began in Portugal in 2011 in Agueda at the annual Agitagueda Art Festival. Now annually during the hot summer months, this idea to artfully hang up umbrellas to provide shade to those walking on the streets, has taken off in cities all over the world. Staring down at the tops of these round beach umbrellas of Makola that get smaller and smaller in the distance, I think we could dub these market streets as some deconstructed real life version of this artwork, that is permanently on display here.
In the horizontal street ahead from this birds eye view you will see piles of enormous brown yams, bright yellow plump plantains, trays filled with okra that looks like green slugs and big circles of local peppers in traffic light colours. The rectangular shapes of tro tros and smaller taxis slowly trudge along the road moving at the complete opposite pace of all the pedestrians around. Impatience rises from the traffic below in the sounds of endless hooters. Blocking the roads on this side are great big trucks that are stationery from which big endless boxes and packages are being offloaded.
It is likely that you will feel some apprehension about becoming part of the chaos on the ground. There have been times that we simply haven’t had the energy to jump onto that high-speed train below and keep up with the required pace, as it no doubt requires significant stamina. But let me tell you a little about what it’s like being in the midst of Makola!
As you exit the car park the busy reality on the ground can feel like a slap in the face as all around you there is a lot going on. There is constant pushing and hurrying and shooing, the market ladies don’t like you lingering long in front of their stalls. The pace at which transactions must take place feels hurried and unnatural. “Hey Obroni, Obroni, MOVE! MOVE!!” (this word used to describe white people is from the Akan language and is used commonly here in a very neutral way, and quite literally translates to “those who come from over the horizon”) The shouts are aimed at you if you dare linger a moment to look at something. I’m curious about how the local people who use Makola for all their shopping actually shop, because there seems to be constant fear that stopping and looking blocks another potential shopper from seeing their wears on display. A definite conundrum I’d say – loitering seems forbidden and decisiveness is key!!
On a recent trip with my friend Lotte we both bought small handbags from a lady and while we were trying to decide which ones we wanted, we had to move around several times to not ‘obstruct’ other stalls! And as you can imagine the stalls are all pretty much on top of each other, so it felt a little like doing the ‘cha cha’ while deciding on styles! The bags were cheap and what is encouraging is that there is no hiking up of prices for the Obronis.
If you can endure the constant feeling of people brushing against your body, the Gospel music blaring and the voices shouting, you will see things that stop you in your tracks. Like the enormous sombrero hats that shelter the hawkers’ shoulders from the scorching sun, the pile of pigs trotters, stacked criss crossed against each other and the meat next to it lying completely exposed and uncovered. The street pedicures and hair braiding taking place. The huge slimy snails clustered together on a big plate, some with heads peaking out, that have an unexpected rim of bright pink on their golden striped shells! The brown toffees that I thought were mini sausages, that the late Anthony Bordain sampled in his No Reservations show about Ghana in 2007 (watch this episode on Youtube it’s good!).
You see, if you can handle the sweat pouring down your back and the fact that your legs need to keep moving, your eyes will see sights like piles of thin costume jewellery that looks like plates of golden spaghetti with light reflecting off them. They will meet with the plastic eyes of peculiar looking mannequin children and their funny expressions, some naked and others clothed. You will stumble upon dark alleyways that have an otherworldly feel to them with fabric in every pattern and colour imaginable, piled high and tumbling out of the little side shops and you will walk through rainbows of endless African wax print!
You will spot dilapidated buildings with remnants of stubborn signs stuck to the walls, that tell of days gone by and you will wonder about that ancient Woolworths shop that used to be there, that couldn’t be further from the Woolies us South Africans know!
Makola has quite a political and economic history too, it was constructed in 1924 but in 1970 under the Rawlings government it was destroyed! It was seen as the epicentre of corruption and to be selling things that were considered banned elsewhere and the market ladies were blamed for Ghana’s economic problems. In 2014 there were again terrible fires that destroyed large areas of the market and alleged claims of syndicates of arsonists behind these.
You can literally buy anything at this enormous market – pots and pans, golden sandals for the emormous feet of Chiefs, cooler bags which our kids have used as school lunch boxes, strips of rich traditional hand woven Kente cloth in intense bright colours, cake tins in all the numbers of all the ages you can turn when you have a birthday, pretty African beaded sandals much cheaper than elsewhere, bags of all sorts of spices, incredible selections of Ghanian Woodin fabric at about 6 cedis cheaper per yard than in the stores, the even more sought after Vlisco fabric that is printed in Holland and cell phone covers like the 20 cedi one that seemed to save my phone when it fell into the pool a few months ago!
You can find shoe polish, mounds of red onions dotted along the pavement like mole holes, toiletries, underwear aplenty (even some padded ‘hips’ and ‘bums’ should you feel you are lacking in those departments!!) dried fish with sharp tails sticking out in a round formation, sunglasses, rat poison, prayer mats in wonderful shades and beautiful second hand sewing machines by the dozen in the retro colours of 70s and 80s style bathrooms, broom sticks, haberdashery supplies and spare car parts. You name it Makola has it! And it is understandable why the locals shop here because things are much cheaper than elsewhere.
In the thick of all the chaos, it is surprisingly well sectioned. These ‘themed’ areas selling similar products must be well known to locals who shop there frequently and know which area to visit depending on what they need. Sometimes an area selling similar products is a clump of umbrellas close by, or a few parallel streets, or a cluster of shops. Those who are selling from the pavement stick to the same place each day. There is the stationery section, selling books and pens and wrapping paper and the advertised services of Commissioner of Oaths. The hair dressing sections with poker faced plastic heads suffocating in plastic bags, and weaves, hair and wigs to hang on them, for a fresh look for every month of the year!
Then there is the ‘Dead White Man’s Clothing Section’. Accra has the largest secondhand clothes market on the planet. Their biggest supplier is the UK and heartbreakingly 40% of the clothes that are sent here are in such poor condition that they end up being sent to the rubbish dumps and the waste management system here does not cope at all. Click here to read a very beautifully written and informative article about this issue and to watch an insightful and eye opening video click here.
Second hand big brand clothes hang from the metal rails of faded old umbrellas at Makola and the shop owners try to spot which garments might suit and fit you when they see you approaching and quickly pull those ones down. There are also ladies standing in a line on the pavement as you enter the market, they hold garments on hangers and gently swish and shake these hoping that the small movement of that jumpsuit may catch your eye as you drive past! Most of the clothes have been sorted and again you have clear ‘sections’ where you can shop. There is the white lacy top umbrella and these garments undoubtedly need to be washed every now and then depending on the frequency of sales, the leggings section, the denim shirt section, the white sneaker section and the high heel shoe section to name a few. The fences, gates and barb wire around Makola are often the ‘mannequins’ from which these clothes are draped on display.
The Rawlings parking lot with the big arch is a good land mark to remember and it’s also an interesting place to stand and watch while the roofs of buses and tro tros are loaded with an unbelievable amount of goods, some of these likely stock smaller shops around the city. There is also a yellow drinks kiosk there where you can sit in a comfy plastic chair, listen to some music and enjoy a cooldrink or a beer at any time of the day you wish! Smells of local Ghanaian food will waft into this space and there is a food area nearby to sample some local cuisine.
After all the walking at some point you will likely start to despair at just how boiling and suffocated you feel in the sweltering humidity and you will long for some quiet in a cool place. At this point you may ponder on just how incredibly resilient the market men and women are for tolerating this level of noise and heat EVERY single day of their lives! Their endurance to keep on showing up, setting up their displays of products that are just the same as their neighbours and therefore even harder to sell, and then taking these in at the end of every day shows real tenacity and grit. This cycle is on repeat seven days a week as the market is open daily from 6am – 8pm!
However you choose to visit Makola, whether it’s from the quiet parking lot looking on, or in the thick of things on the ground, once the trip is over and you are back in your air conditioned home flopped on your couch, sticky with perspiration and in need of a shower, you will very likely feeling a bit weary from the sensory overload. Your mind might be scrambling to make sense of all that colour, sound and motion but I can quite confidently guarantee that you will think back on the things you saw and acknowledge that it was for sure an extraordinary eccentric experience!
Tips for visiting Makola
- Ladies sell sachets or bottles of water but still best to take your own water bottle as sometimes you don’t see them for a while.
- Take cash. There are no credit card machines.
- Take a Ghana fabric fan to keep cool and some tissues – you will need to wipe your face and keep cool with all the sweating you will do!!
- Make sure to take a handbag or small purse that fastens securely and that you can safely feel against your body at all times, like one that has a strap across the front of your body. A backpack is not a good idea.
- Make sure you apply sunscreen before the trip and take a hat.
- Take some fabric shopping bags for the goods you buy.
- There is a bathroom on the ground level of the mentioned parking lot, for 1 cedi you can enter and you get some toilet paper.
- If you want to take a photo, always check that people are happy for you to do so, and offer a few cedis for the photo. (the lady who sells the pig trotters wants 10 cedis a picture!)
- Take note of landmarks along the way. There are a few large maps around but they are hard to read and often obstructed, and it is very easy to be disorientated as areas are crowded and can look the same. I can get easily confused about where I am at Makola and I again apologise to my friends who were following my lead a few months ago when I took them in a complete circle in the crazy midday heat!
- Look out for fakes. Sometimes a closer look at the Vlisco fabric that is a fraction of what it usually costs, reveals that it is in fact VILSCO with jumbled up letters.
- A small mirror could come in handy if you plan on buying beads, jewellery or clothes. We are always taking photos of ourselves standing with fabric to see if it suits us.
- There is another parking lot under the SIC Life Mall that is handy if you are wanting to shop for fabrics and go to the nearby alleyway with lots of reduced price Woodin fabric.
- Enjoy the crazy experience and take it all in !