The heart of Toi Market is a maze of tiny stalls selling everything from Barbies to winter jackets. Light streams dimly through off-white polythene roofs. It is perpetual twilight even at noon. This is where most of Nairobi comes to hunt for stylish Treasure among the second-hand clothes and shoes (mitumba). Here are six ways to kill time at Toi Market and discover much more than mitumba.
Learn how to shop like a celebrity
Suleiman scrolls through his Instagram feed pointing out his clients: this celebrity; that news presenter; and even that famous pastor’s daughter. His shop, Tonnie Blanks, sells sneakers just like the intimidating pair of red Pumas that he’s wearing. He sneers when I suggest that perhaps his shoes are knockoffs.
Some Toi Market vendors take pride in selling only genuine brand names. Martin, who specializes in leather bags, takes 10-minutes off his khat-chewing break to give me a proper education in telling Phrada from Prada— look at the zips; look for the place of manufacture; smell the inside of the bag. Through dubious math, he estimates that knockoffs cannot possibly make up more than 10 per cent of the Toi Market stock. I do not trust his calculations but armed with this newly-found knowledge, I head off determined to not leave until I turn myself into a mtumba Carrie Bradshaw.
Take a break, go to mass
In the cool gardens of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I forget that Toi Market exists within smelling distance. I sit at a grotto on the edge of the church compound letting the sounds of bubbling water and mass wash away the chaos of mtumba shopping. I find spots like these all over the gardens. My favourite is a bench hidden under a canopy of bouganevelia. On the other side of the church, children as young as seven and as old as 17 shriek across a basketball court, in a game whose only rules seem to be “don’t get hurt”.
Eventually I wander into the church proper, a building whose foundation stone was laid in 1973. The building is a mixture of minimalist lines and bursting colour. Evening filters through a grid of stained glass windows. On murals high up near the ceiling, Jesus lives and dies in ripe oranges, fertile greens and ocean-deep blues.
Ask Idris about Lost Treasure
Ask Idris has a distinctive smell— something adjacent to paraffin mixed in with age and incense. I will later discover that the first scent is brass polish, used liberally to bring the shine back to old pressure lamps. Every corner of this antique shop is occupied by some knick-knack that might yet reveal itself to be treasure. Idris’ father, Kasmani started the collection more than 40 years ago as a hobby.
Today Kasmani tries to sell me on chests from Zanzibar; Chinese porcelain vases; copper pots from India; and cupboards with distinctive Lamu craftsmanship. I find the history of East Africa narrated in an album of stamps and there are old railway lamps which, I imagine, must have lit the way north for the first riders of the Lunatic Express. Looking around this shop I can’t help but think that the Indian Ocean has somehow washed up on this corner of Nairobi.
I feel as though my tongue has been stripped raw. And I still have approximately 275 milliliters of juice to drink. Lydia, who sold me the drink from her stall on Suna Road, watches me with barely-veiled laughter. She warned me against ordering this specific drink— a sugar cane, Aloe vera, garlic, and ginger concoction that is the colour of oxidized avocado. I gulp the rest of my drink and crow with pride that I didn’t shed a single tear throughout the whole experience.
As soon as Lydia’s back is turned I rush across Toi Market to Adams Arcade in search of proof that my taste buds can still function. I find it at Mapelibe, a little juice bar that suits less adventurous tastes. The family that owns the shop wanted to Make People’s Life Better (Mapelibe). This juice bar is the foil of Lydia’s stall. It has clean lime-coloured aesthetic; mangoes that always seem to be in season; and not a whiff of crushed Aloe Vera.
Make Friends with Mama Mboga, load up on groceries
I stumble onto Toi Market’s fresh produce section hidden away behind piles of charcoal. Here, the mtumba smell which can become nauseating after more than two hours of exposure is replaced by the sweet smell of ripe fruit and the burn of onion. I came for a banana but by the time I finish talking to Justina, the mama mboga who commandeers my attention, I am loaded down with a kilo of groundnuts, vague knowledge of how to turn them into a sauce and undeserved confidence that I am about to wow my whole family with my new culinary expertise.
This culinary confidence will later compel me to buy a large jar of locally-made mango chutney (no preservatives!) at PemaFarm, a grocery shop at the Adams Arcade. That evening I experiment with an original recipe that combines both groundnuts and mango chutney with disastrous (perhaps even poisonous) results.
Test your luck and strength at Funscapes
The buzzing and popping of the Funscapes, above Adam’s Arcade should be enough to distract children (and adult-children) for at least one hour. My spaghetti arms let me down when I test my strength at one of the machines.
After ten minutes of hitting everything but the target on another machine, I learn that I should never be allowed near a gun or an arrow or darts or really anything sharp and pointy that can be thrown. When I try to sneak into the bouncing castle, the five year-old that is lording over that kingdom gives me a nasty enough look that I rediscover my adultness and walk away with a tucked tail.
Read our latest issue of Nomad Magazine on Issuu.
Also click here to see where you can grab your FREE copy of Nomad Magazine.