The Duka

Tailor 1-

Towards the end of 2023, I was the women with the bag of clothes for mending being rejected by all the village tailors. They were too busy with Christmas outfit orders.

Overlooking Mwatate township in Dawida (Taita), Kenya

I got miffed with the last fundi. That’s the one whose shop boasted an array of the most beautifully and elaborately tailored African outfits. All I wanted was a stitching here and there.

“I will not tell a lie,” he said. It’s the way he said it.

My mind travels back. I see the round of his eyes now, like the white buttons for school uniforms, I thought, properly sincere and sewn in place.

“He thinks he will go to heaven for not telling a lie.” I didn’t say it out loud. I wanted him to tell me a lie – that he can squeeze my load in and do the mending.

“Ok, just tell me how many days it will take you to hem up my skirts,” I say

“I cannot tell a lie. Afadhali hata nifunge duka,” he says, button eyes and all. Sheesh, the arrogance of the statement. He’d rather close shop than tell a lie, he says. Jesus of the mountains!

I throw him a rolled eye and leave. But I have rolled my eyeball too far back into the socket and the string holding it to the back of the head feels too tight. My village ego has caused me an eye-strain because I cannot take no for an answer. How can all the tailors across the township be that busy? I go home.

Mwatate Metro-

The vibrant electronics duka at Mwatate township, one of 5 or so that have cropped up in the recent past

The next day, I remember, we walked into an electronic duka to buy an HDMI cable. We had been doing some kind of duka exploration, seeing what’s where, who’s selling what, just as we do every year in the vibrancy of the duka economy at Martha’s Vineyard.

A duka economy – small ma and pa stores – is like a kaleidoscope. Not the cookie-cutter merchandize that looks the same in all Walmarts, not the McDonald franchises that kill the food shacks and their local cuisine. In a duka economy, everything is different, competitive, new, growing, alive.

From tailors to fresh produce kiosks, Somali migrants with their basins and mirrors, Maasai neighbors with their sandals and beaded belts, Kamba women and their pixie oranges stalls, Mwatate is a village township in the early stages of metropolization. You wouldn’t know it if you lived in there because it’s hard to see the process of dust turning to brick when you are a part of the process.

We’re in the electronics store, Preston and I. “I’ve got only this 3-footer left, all ten footers sold out,” says the shopkeeper.

We better take what is left. What comes in the duka leaves the duka quickly. 380/= for the HDMI cable ($2.40). It’s what we need to screen an outdoor movie to a group of kids on Christmas eve. We get a neatly stapled receipt and our cable put in that familiar fibre bag you’ll find in all dukas. Plastic bags have been most successfully outlawed in Kenya for some years now.

When I was entering the Kenyan airspace, the KLM pilot made an announcement: “We are touching down in Nairobi Kenya. It is illegal to enter the Kenyan space with plastic bags. If you have any, please leave them in the plane.” Yes sir!

I don’t know if other airlines make that announcement but I recall it felt like the warmest greeting ever. Down with destroyers of environment!


The village supermarket across the street from the post office sits quietly, a world apart from the pulsating life of small traders. Bafagih Supermarket is a small two-story brick presence sandwiched between ragged dukas overflowing with everything and patco. Patco! That’s what the tailor’s eyes looked like!

Growing up, that ageless piece of button candy we called patco crumbled in our mouth with a soft burst of peppermint like sand washing out at the riverbank. Here it is generations later still peeking out of glass jars in every duka.

I look at that patco as we head on to the supermarket and I entertain a wave of useless hope that it still costs ndururu (5cts) a piece. Sorry.. I have to stop writing for a minute. Inflation just slapped me in the face. It is the new ogre in town breathing down every duka. Patco long fell victim to inflation too.

The supermarket makes me feel a little… unsettled, as if I’ve been accidentally transported back to an American city while still standing in this dust-to-brick township. On the ground floor, they have everything I’d find at the Giant, or Safeway, or Weis, including a little bakery.

Upstairs, the steep ramp gives you access to all kinds of appliances – cookers (stoves for you Americans), washing machines, fridges, microwaves, blenders… We get a fan from upstairs and farmer’s choice sausages from downstairs. And ice cream, yes, ice cream. I kid you not, Kenyan ice cream tastes better than Amsterdam and New York ice cream, all flavors combined. It’s the cows.

Bafagih. The supermarket at Mwatate township

We leave with our load of merchandize all securely packed in a box at the cashiers. Outside, a row of bodaboda rides awaits. We beckon to one, load up his motorbike, pay him with text money, and minutes later he delivers the goods home, all for 100/- ($0.63). We are free to walk back home as we planned.

Preston says- “Where can you buy goods with texted money, get them on a stranger’s motorbike who delivers efficiently, and you go about your business?” It’s a rhetorical question, so I say- “Let’s have tea in that kiosk.” Which we do. I did not like that tea and the pastries looked sad. The place seems to be dying a lazy death. We text the tea “hotel” guy his money and leave. Preston is amused that every little food shack is called a hotel.

There’s plenty of room for new food businesses here. Clean, quality local eateries for the small pocket. Do it now while Mwatate’s food is still authentic. Local greens; mkwaju for fresh tamarind juice; fresh milk for real chai (forget Starbucks), make that with sweet mahamri; coconut beans and cassava and ripe apple-mangoes hanging low; where butcheries carry fresh slaughter and bone soup is medicine.

I must tell you this, my people. Be careful to not allow your duka businesses to die a lazy death, because if you do, those you call outsiders will come and build where your dreams lie in a pile of rubble. A sense of fatalism is our achilles heel. Calculated laziness. Grow your duka with the brain in your head and with the hands you have, and if you get blisters, put some balm and keep going.

Tailor 2-

Now, the village winds have loud whispers. Everyone knows we were searching for a tailor. On our way back, a new tailor has set up shop at the end of a row of kiosks!

She calls out- “You have a bag full of clothes for mending, don’t you!” “I sure do!” I say. “Bring them all!” We do, and she commences to running that machine like a hurricane. It’s the duka economy, and I hope it will never be replaced.

New traders in the making. Mwatate girls receiving sewing machine gifts. Photo courtesy of Taita Taveta County Government (2016)

I’m not naïve about globalization and its far-reaching tentacles. The local market at the far end of the township has a long section of secondhand clothes – whudhaydi (who died) – as Somalis used to call them. Mtumba, as Kenyans call them. Used up rags imported from far-away countries.

I’ve seen them – outerwear, innerwear, underwear, footwear, funguswear. Rags of indignity. I have no problem with hand-me-downs gifted with love, no problem whatsoever with dignified charity. I have a problem with ignoble globalization that takes advantage of strategic poverty. Thankfully, Mwatate’s tailors still thrive in spite of who-died clothing.

Those in the big cities who run boutiques with classy newish mtumba should never use that as an excuse to keep this repugnant aspect of globalization running.


I hope we will never wake up to an Amazon warehouse in this village, or a Walmart, or an African sweatshop run by moguls from Guangzhou. I curse the thought itself. Because then Mwatate’s ma and pa shops will surely die, and with them the spirit of this place.

Preston and I walking the outskirts on Mwatate township

There’s a reason neighborhoods of the wealthy anywhere in the world do not allow these monstrosities of global antidevelopment. They know there’s a dying of the human soul that happens when you cannot eat from a variety of locally owned restaurants, when you cannot buy new outfits made by local hands, when you cannot fill up your fridge with foods from local farmers.

There’s a terrible dying that happens when a people are forced to labor for gods of an economy they can neither see nor control. If this ever happens, I hope all the tailors and their sincere button eyes that cannot tell a lie will put on their marching boots and say to these franchise gods- We rule these streets!

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