Finding Gems in the Beautiful Chaos of Owino Market
The first time I went to Owino Market, I went with my best friend. We had both just joined university, and the pressure to “appear” fashionable while there was so high that we needed to revamp our wardrobe. We had heard that they open new stock at dawn, so we arrived at the marketplace at 6 a.m. thinking we would be the first customers. But alas! The market was already filled to capacity with boutique owners shopping for outfits and shoes that they would later sell for a significant profit in their uptown boutiques. It was like a madhouse, with over 20 people surrounding a heap of clothes, frantically trying to pick the best items as quickly as possible.
Owino Market is the largest open market in Uganda, occupying 7.04 hectares of land in Kampala, Uganda. It was established in 1971 when Kampala City Council relocated 320 vendors from Nakasero Market.
Initially, the Kampala City Council named it the Municipal Market, but the vendors later changed it to Owino Market after an elderly man whom they found in the area roasting maize and sweet potatoes. The initial structures were made of papyrus, then replaced by iron sheets and subsequently renovated with timber.
It’s estimated that there are over 50,000 vendors/traders in Owino Market, of whom approximately 70 percent are women. Thousands of customers visit this market on a daily basis, and the numbers tend to increase significantly a few days before public holidays and the festive seasons.
Owino Market is famously known for its secondhand clothes, but you can buy everything from herbs to home appliances, bedsheets, foodstuff, shoes, bags and so much more! It shouldn’t come as a surprise if you find yourself spending more time than you planned in Owino – the diversity of the fare is very attractive, and once you’re inside, it is quite hard to find your way out.
Telma – my best friend – is a more aggressive shopper than I am; she dived into the heap to “rescue” promising tops or dresses while handing them to me for safe-keeping. Her skills were ridiculously impressive, and she got almost as many as the other “professional” buyers. I held our loot as tightly as I could because I knew that if I momentarily put one back down, it would be gone! When we were comfortable with the number of items we had in my hands, the selection began.
As the extremely worn-out tops or dresses were returned back to the heap, the other customers would eagerly dive forward and have a mini struggle for a dress, only to put it back down in disappointment upon realizing it’s too “damaged.” We also had to sort out those that needed to be taken to the tailor for adjustment so they could fit us.
One downside of early morning shopping is not being able to tell the specific color of an outfit or whether it has stains, since there isn’t enough light in the market at that time of day. Another is that there isn’t enough room for haggling, because the sacks of new stock come in classes – first class, second class and budget. The trader calls out the non-negotiable prices before customers dive into his heap of items. He continuously sings the prices until he has sold everything!
The second time, I went by myself for an afternoon of shopping, and, to my surprise, I got lost! Owino Market is like an over populated maze. Vendors aggressively trying to grab your attention, tugging at your hands and suggesting you buy a pair of skinny jeans when all you want is a swimsuit. Frankly speaking, it’s exhausting prying your hand from so many fingers. Despite my love-hate relationship with Owino Market, I was able to find three of my favorite things: a colorful Nike vest, a Reebok bra, and Puma shorts that make feel like a professional athlete!
There are times when one’s wardrobe needs a quick fix, but just the thought of going through the hustle that is Owino Market is mentally exhausting, so when you find a good vendor, you get their phone number and ask if they can deliver to your place of work. Most of the ladies uptown – and some men – prefer this option because it’s convenient and hustle free. If you casually scroll through people’s phonebooks and find names such as Musa Designer or Sula Designer, odds are it’s an Owino vendor; they love being referred to as designers.
Overall, shopping at Owino is a fascinating adventure that needs to be experienced firsthand, with all the beautiful chaos therein. If you’re ever in the market for… well, an authentic open-air African market experience, Owino Market will meet all your expectations, and quite possibly exceed them.