I got off of the bus at the Accra Arts Centre at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The bright sun warmed my skin as I squinted to see into the distance. Standing alone in a barren lot, the dirt overwhelmed me, clinging to the moisture on my skin and getting into the corners of my mouth. In front of me there were at least 20 stalls lined up one after another, extending backward for what seemed like a mile or more.
I ventured forward, entering the markets like a child would a corn maze. I was excited yet unsure of where to begin. How easy it would be to get lost in this labyrinth of colors. There were lush fabrics in a rainbow display of geometric patterns amongst quilted bags and beaded jewelry. Wooden carved statuettes rested stoically on tabletops as artists tried to sell small canvases. Everywhere I looked there was something new to see. The items in each stall were so similar in type, but varying in terms of style and design. No sooner would I buy a bracelet than I would see another one that I liked even better in a stand across the aisle. I felt my wallet, weighing heavily in my pocket, getting liighter with each step I took.
Walking through the stalls at the Accra markets was different from anything I had experienced before. It was not like going to the mall or shopping in NYC’s SoHo. There were no set price tags or cash registers, no receipts or returns. Prices were made at the will of the vendor, increasing most readily for tourists with white skin. Haggling was expected.
After wandering around for over an hour, I decided to make my final purchases. I had only 20 cedis left. What I really wanted was Ghanaian cloth. I planned to bring it to my grandmother’s house after my trip so that together we could create tangible reminders of where I’d been and how far I’d come. I eyed the kente cloth, hand-woven from pieces of silk and cotton. Historically it was worn by royals and people of great importance. However, even in Ghana, where there are 1.6 cedis to the dollar, this cloth is expensive. Some people charge 200 cedis for just two yards, which is hardly enough to make even a skirt.
So instead I went into a stall that sold all cotton fabrics. The dimensions weren’t more than five feet by five feet. I fingered through the fabrics that were stacked up along the perimeter of the stall. There were so many choices and I am naturally indecisive. In the end it turned out that I was not ready to settle on a material just yet. I wanted first to see what else was available. So I tried to leave; I told the vendor I had to go, but she kept showing me more, coaxing me back into her space. I started to walk out, but she won’t let me; her hands grabbed my upper arm. I could feel her fingers tighten around my forearm. “No, thank you,” I said politely. But she didn’t listen. This was her livelihood. But did she not see that I was in pain, that I wanted to cry? I thought to myself, this is not the way to get my business. The more she pressured me, the less I wanted to buy.
Finally I pulled out of her grip and walked as quickly as I could in the other direction, not looking back. I still felt pain where her hand once gripped my arm. I saw the bus ahead, sitting patiently in the lot. I sighed with relief. I had had enough of the Arts Centre. I was ready to go home.
Story and Photos by Claire Schmidt