“Nice things, cheap things”– Dorothy’s apt, four-word description of Mbare Musika (Mbare Market). Until yesterday, Mark and I had yet to visit this renowned market south of downtown
Dorothy accompanied us to serve as our guide and to ensure we didn’t get murungu (white person) prices. She is an excellent bargainer, and always asked vendors for our banzela – or free gift – such as the bowl above. Plus, Dorothy is lots of fun to be around, with an infectious laugh that probably would have drawn the attention of everyone in the market even if she hadn’t been walking around with the only white people within a five-mile radius. Like many markets, Mbare attracts its share of pickpockets and other unsavory elements, so we brought little cash, no cell phones and, unfortunately, no camera. I hope my words do the place justice.
The market grid is loosely divided into sections. In one section there are vendors selling grain, grain meal, beans, dried vegetables (including mufushwa), and mopani worms (fat, grey-black, dried caterpillars). Traditional healers (n’anga) manned booths in another area, hawking bottles of unidentifiable objects floating in tea-colored liquid, bits of horn, animal skins, and bowls filled with various pale-colored powders. A large group of stands sold school uniforms, flip flops, electrical equipment, clothes and other sundries. And, of course, there were row upon row of fruit and vegetable vendors. Unlike, say, a market on the Mexican border, you are encouraged – but not harassed – to buy, which makes pleasant, laid-back browsing possible.
Here are the market scenes that caught my eye: men and women deftly shelling peas, with woven plates on their laps to catch the peas and discarded pea pods collecting by their feet. A vegetable vendor leaning back comfortably upon a tall pile of cabbages. The requisite person walking around with a chicken under his arm. The surprised look of the woman carrying a huge bag of potatoes and balancing a full-to-the-brim basket on her head, whom I almost ran into. Produce being loaded onto rickety trucks for distribution and sale at the local supermarkets. A hand-painted sign that read “Save water, drink beer,” hung in front of a pile of hollowed-out gourds (perfect for beer drinking) and next to mounds of chimera, a malted grain meal used to make home brew.Most of the items we bought at Mbare Musika are familiar to supermarkets around the world – carrots, peas, onions, tomatoes, ginger. Beyond these standards, regular readers will recognize the ugly dumbe. We also bought two types of meal – sorghum meal and rapoko (finger millet meal), both of which can be used to make sadza as an alternative to the more commonly-used maize meal. Another one of our purchases was okra that had been dried and pounded, creating a fine green powder ideal for sautéing with tomatoes and onions to create a sadza-accompanying relish. And those beady eyes staring back at you from the photo? They are kapenta, a dried fish. I’ll be cooking with some of these items over the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
Like many markets, Mbare is also the place to hear the latest gossip. Case in point: There has been no bread in
All in all, the day reminded Mark and I of how much we love markets, whether they be scenic, functional, historic, seedy, or a little bit of each. I’ve previously mentioned our favorite